Release Date: January 24, 2017
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing
Genre: Historical Fantasy
“San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.
Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where mystery, science, and art intersect.” (via Goodreads)
Passing Strange is a charming and unexpectedly sharp novella about queer love, female friendship, and the everyday acts of subtle resistance by people in marginalized communities. The story is bookended by Helen Young, an elderly Asian American woman who has come to the end of her life, but has one last thing to do before she goes. Helen tracks down an unscrupulous antiques dealer and sells him a rare piece of art – the final illustration from the mysterious artist Haskel. In the 1940s, Haskel was known for their lurid covers of pulp fiction novels, but this piece features two women dancing against a nighttime cityscape backdrop. The scene is sweet and romantic, the exact opposite of Haskel’s usual fare, but it’s no forgery. In fact, it’s something far, far greater than a simple painting.
The story then jumps back to early mid-century San Francisco to focus on the blossoming relationship between Haskel and Emily, two young women who fled their oppressive homes for the freedom of the City by the Bay. Well, freedom might be too big a word. Queerness was still illegal, and the police had no compunction about tormenting and torturing anyone who defied gender norms. Being a person of color was also no picnic. Redlining and Jim Crow were in full swing, and Asian Americans and Indigenous people were barred from attending public schools until 1947 (although this rule was frequently violated). But for two white queer cis women, San Francisco was still better than being forced to be straight back home.
Haskel and Emily are friends with Helen, as well as Franny and Babs (two lesbians as close to married as they can get), and Franny’s English niece Polly. And here’s where the magic kicks in. Franny can create origami maps that when folded and unfolded allow the wielder to cross short distances in a matter of seconds. Two other women also use a different kind of magic, but spoilers means I can’t tell you. The magic is small and personal, but powerful in meaning. The women all use magic not as a weapon or means of gaining power but as a way to protect themselves.
As a historian of marginalized communities in the Bay Area, Passing Strange was particularly fascinating. Mentions of Mona’s, Finocchio’s, secret stairs embedded into the hillsides, the Golden Gate International Exposition at Treasure Island, alleyways in Chinatown, all of it like a travel guide through pre-war San Francisco. If you know anything about Bay Area history, you’ll know that the region before World War II (especially in the early 20th century) was drastically different than the wartime and postwar eras. Much of prewar San Francisco (and the Bay Area, frankly) occupied by queer and POC communities is long gone, held only in fragile memories, faded photographs, and forgotten ephemera. But Ellen Klages digs it all up and sprinkles it throughout Passing Strange.
Klages’ novella is an iceberg: the quiet ease of a glimpse into the past and a beautifully written love story float above the surface while heavy conversations on sexism, homophobia, gender expression, gender identity, racism, and police brutality bob underneath. It’s beautiful and sad and a definitely Must Read.
On the last Monday of her life, Helen Young returned from the doctor’s and made herself a cup of tea. As she had expected, the news was not good; there was nothing more that could be done.
From the windows of her apartment high atop Nob Hill, San Francisco’s staggered terraces lay like a child’s blocks, stacked higgledy-piggledy, the setting sun turning glass and steel into orange neon, old stone and stucco walls glowing with a peach patina. The fog coiled though the hills like a white serpent.
She set the delicate porcelain cup onto a teak side table and thought about what she needed to accomplish. Her final To-Do list. Ivy, her companion-slash-caregiver had the day off, which made the most important task both simpler and more challenging. She would not have to explain, but would have to do it all herself.
Perhaps she should wait until morning? Helen debated, then picked up her phone. After seventy-five years, she was the last one standing; this was no time for missteps or procrastination. She tapped the screen and summoned a cab.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.