What I’m reading: Growing up gay in 1960s-era Florida

Remember the tv series NYPD Blue, and the episode in which Dennis Franz shows his butt? I loved that show. Twenty-one years ago, when Hot Firefighter Husband (who was then just Editor Husband) wanted us to move to north Florida from Minnesota, this place was still so backwards obtuse birdbrained that the show had been banned here. It was almost a deal-breaker.

Go back even further in your time machine, and imagine being gay while growing up deep in the bowels of the Sunshine State. Or imagine jumping off the Tallahatchie River bridge every day of your childhood; I’m guessing both scenarios would be equally frightening and painful.

We don’t immediately know the sexual preferences of Jodie Taylor, the character in Pat Spears’ latest novel; we first meet her as she steps through the door of her Florida childhood home, slapped by the lingering scent of an old man dying. The man, Red Dozier, may have tried to be a father to her, but she’ll never forget – or forgive – how he left Jodie and her mother when they needed him most.

But there’s more to this story than a young woman learning to forgive. Soon, we’re brought back to the first place Jodie truly called home – a small ramshackle building she shared with her mother in Eufaula, Alabama. It’s where she spent long afternoons with her best friend, Ginger, and inherently understood they shared a loving bond that others would find repulsive.INLIKH_small-promo_cover

It’s Not Like I Knew Her, Spears’ second novel, tells Jodie’s story with a calm sensitivity which draws us in like the scent of a blooming gardenia, and the result is a fascinating, absorbing tale of archaic Deep South traditions, heartbreaking intolerance, and the unlikely yet persistent proof that good people can always be found.

Jodie spends her early years in Alabama with her mother, Jewel, an aspiring country singer with a penchant for bad men and drunken nights. But Jewel’s negligent habits teach her daughter to fend for herself and, more importantly, that she can’t even count on the people she loves most. After Jewel takes off with a traveling band, Jodie lives first with her bewildered and straight-laced aunt and then with her father Red Dozier, whose wife resents her very existence. The minute she graduates from high school, she leaves.

But seeking freedom from the constrictions of her past inevitably provokes more questions than answers. She had run away from a town where she thought no one understood her. As she travels around 1960s-era Alabama and Florida, she realizes she barely understands herself.  Along the way, she stumbles through the racism and bigotry those decades helped define – and she often finds herself the target of such intolerance.

The book’s themes are particularly pertinent now, with gender politics threatening again to bitterly divide people. What Jodie learns and later helps others to understand is that people are people, some good and some bad. It might be my favorite aspect of the book – Jodie’s realization that not everyone who knows her secret will resent her for it.

Pat Spears grew up in north Florida, and the proof is in the details. In her capable literary hands, the humid heat feels hotter, the creek water seems cooler, and the RC colas are infinitely more refreshing. Her first novel, Dream Chaser, told the story of a cowboy trying to raise three kids on his own after his wife left. It’s a book with grit and dirt on every page, and stars a young girl working so hard to be grown up it hurt my heart to read. It’s Not Like I Knew Her carries the same depth of emotion, and the dust of north Florida feels just as real; but this story – my goodness – it’s transporting. It’s not just a coming-of-age tale –  it’s more like one young woman’s journey to find out where she belongs. What she discovers is that she belongs where she wants to be, and where the people she loves still love her back – not despite who she is, but because of it. Through Spears, Jodie doesn’t so much figure out she’s gay – she knew she was different since forever – rather, she learns how to really live being gay, and how to fit into a world she once thought beyond her reach. It’s a lesson worth learning again and again.

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