Imagine living in the seventies in a conservative community in California. Oh, and you’re also a closeted teenage lesbian. No one knows about it and you keep going to church and pretend to fight against the homosexuals just so your family won’t find out. This epistolary novel follows Tammy and Sharon, two juniors in high school living in two different cities in California, figuring out their ways of the world. They happen to be paired for a summer pen-pal project for school. As they grow closer through writing, the reader learns about them each separately.
Tammy’s world is pretty small. She goes to school and helps her aunt and uncle run the New Way Baptist church in her free time. Tammy has a secret: “I’ve been getting crushes on girls since before I was old enough to know what the word ‘crush’ meant.” Her secret is buried within letters addressed to Harvey Milk, a well-known gay civil rights activist. Of course, they don’t actually get mailed out. There’s a possibility of them getting into the wrong hands, but the reader gets to read about her life through her writing. Her only other way to vent is to listen to punk records in her bedroom.
Sharon lives with her homosexual-fearing mother and her not-quite out gay brother, Peter. He has only told Sharon that he is gay and she begins to question that if her brother is gay, what is really wrong with other sexualities? Sharon also has a boyfriend, Kevin, and she doesn’t seem to have the same feelings that she used to have toward him before she started talking to Tammy: “Things are awkward between me and Kevin, too. There’s a strain between us, and I can’t pinpoint why. The space between us is filling up with all the things I don’t know how to tell him.” She begins to branch out and walk the streets of San Francisco in gay rights rallies with her brother and attend local punk shows nearby to satisfy her longing for new experiences. She feels she can let go of her worries, her anger, and her longing for something that she doesn’t know the answer to quite yet. She enjoys the “anger that pulse[s] through the music and the air.”
The beginning is slow, but for good reason. The reader learns about each girl’s past and present lives while also setting the scene for when the girls meet in person. The dual perspectives written in letters are fundamental for the novel because diving into the girls’ personal thoughts and feelings gives the novel a more intimate look into what it was like being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in the seventies. These two young women who are figuring out their identities in the world of Anita Bryant and Dan White have to keep up with their perfect appearances in order to be “normal” in their society. As they fight to figure out who they are in secret and write letters that are hidden in purses and closets to their pen pal, Sharon and Tammy individually discover new worlds that didn’t seem possible. Both Sharon and Tammy grow and thrive in this secret world, away from their families and conservative communities. The most difficult part being, keeping it all a secret by conserving their beliefs, their sexualities, and their true selves behind closed doors. They are making their mark and steadily coming to terms with themselves, even if it is “against the rules.” As they continue to write each other letters, even when they are sleeping in the same room together, beginnings of something more come to the surface.
The emphasis of the story doesn’t depend on a love interest. Crushes and the boyfriend are kept on the sidelines, while the focus is set on gay rights, family, and friendship. I appreciate young adult fiction novels that don’t depend on love interests to carry the story. Although politics have a significant presence, it doesn’t take over the plot either. At the time, Anita Bryant was the talk of many conversations and Talley shows how Bryant is taking a toll on many young lives. Doesn’t that sound familiar with the current political climate? Politics are not mentioned often in young adult novels, but they sure are emerging, most likely because of the current political situation. Similar to how the current political climate is affecting Sharon’s and Tammy’s lives, younger people are showing interest in the future of their country.
Young adult fiction, is a genre that is on the rise, especially novels with characters of color, characters with disabilities, and characters from the LGBTQ+ community. Young adult fiction is the perfect place to have a diverse cast of characters because younger readers not only get to see themselves represented in non-harmful circumstances, but they also begin to learn that being themselves is simply beautiful. Talley’s characters portray qualities that every teenager can look up to. They are the kind of people who are afraid to be heard, but enjoy standing up for others.
Getting to know these young women through their own writing is magical, especially because they are slowly learning about themselves. The more they write about their most recent emotions, the more they realize the social issues in their communities and in their own homes. Sharon grows into herself the more she learns about the outside world and her gay pen pal, Tammy: “I don’t think we’re all meant to live exactly the same way. How can we, when our lives are defined by all these accidents? Maybe being gay or straight is an accident too. That’s why I listen to punk. It’s all about being different, and how it’s a good thing.” The punk music aspect of the book really brings this whole story together, hence, the title of the book. Punk music is the common factor that sparks the beginning of Tammy and Sharon’s friendship and what eventually brings them to another world that they couldn’t have imagined. Talley’s novel reminded me of an older teenage summer flick, but even better; it’s way gayer! The writing is simple, easy to read, and because of that, the message hits home in a way that anyone can understand. I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters for days afterward. This book is a definite must-read for anyone looking for or interested in a gay, young-adult, historical-fiction novel for sure.
Waverly is from New Orleans, but grew up in Peachtree City, Georgia. She has her Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing from Loyola University New Orleans. She currently reads fiction for New Orleans Review, works at a local independent bookstore, and snuggles with her three-legged cat, Nacho, in her off-time.