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By Dawn Wolfe
Poet and novelist Jane Summer makes an excellent point in her introduction to “Not the Only One,” the latest in a series of anthologies for gay and lesbian teens: “What exactly is lesbian and gay fiction?”
She continues, “To my mind, excellent literature transcends content: Shouldn’t a novel be judged by the author’s level of storytelling mastery and not whether its leading ladies are gay or straight?”
The stories in “Not the Only One” answer Summer’s question with a mixed bag ranging from the above-average to the excellent. But even when they seemed a bit overly obvious to this adult reviewer, each and every story in “Only One” treated its subject with the sensitivity and respect due to young gay and lesbian readers.
The stories in this book take place across boundaries of age, time, place, class and race. “Mrs. Houdini’s Wife” tells a turn-of-the-century story with a twist, and along with “Guarding the Punch – and Alice,” may provide a bit of an eye-opener to any young reader who erroneously thinks that gayness is a modern invention.
The stories’ physical locations are varied too – with “God Lies in the Details,” set in Africa, taking the prize both for most far-away locale and, perhaps, the wisest lines: “A lot of times something looks good and draws you in. Up close, you see it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. … It’s not easy to know when to go and when to stay. Life costs time and energy, Karimoko. It’s easier to manage when you’re on your own, but then being alone is a different kind of hard.”
The stories in “Only One” introduce us to young people who are just discovering their sexuality, those for whom it is an already accepted part of their lives – and one special boy, Thomas, and his friend “Sara,” for whom sexuality itself has yet to even become an issue. And, even though the majority of the characters are assumed to be white, we are treated also to Asian and African-American youths, youths who live in mansions and trailer parks. In addition to being explicitly accepting and affirming of gay and lesbian sexuality, the editors of “Only One” were smart enough to include stories with all sorts of diverse characters.
Of special note is Gregory Maguire’s “The Honorary Shepherds,” and the one poem in the book, “Gay,” by Melanie Braverman. The edgy tenderness of “Shepherds” made for a fine read – while “Gay” is a lush piece that may just encourage a young reader to try his or her hand at verse.
One note to parents – given that sexuality is one of the main themes of most of the stories, sexual situations abound. However, none were depicted in a graphic or sensationalistic manner – and given what’s on television these days seemed quite tame.
The most “graphic” example is probably found in “Mrs. Houdini’s Wife.” After author Angela Brown describes how the two female characters have disrobed, she tells us, “Wordlessly, the two lay side by side on the bed, naked, wanting. Bess leaned over Tom’s lithe, muscular body and began kissing her from head to toe. … Down her smooth neck and breastbone. … Tom’s eyes were open, her body calm and receiving, her chest slowly rising and falling. Bess focused on Tom’s arms, which were badly scarred with snakebites; with each kiss, she healed Tom’s body, transformed her wounds into something beautiful.”
Overall, “Not the Only One” provides two valuable services to lesbian and gay youth. One is the affirmation that both the title and the stories provide, but the other, equally valuable, is that the majority of these tales are sufficiently well-written to be judged, not merely good “gay literature,” but good literature – period.