cover image Earth As It Is

Earth As It Is

Jan Maher. Indiana Univ., $20 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-0-253-02404-6

Maher’s debut is a satisfyingly complex character study exploring gender identity in the postwar Midwest. Charlie Bader has always been drawn to the softer textures of women’s clothing—a shameful secret that, when he was a young man, cost him his marriage. In 1933, Charlie leaves small-town Texas for Chicago, where, for the first time, he dares to venture out in public as a woman. He finds kinship in the Full Self Sisterhood, a secret organization of like-minded individuals—some of whom live fully as women, others who dress up only recreationally. Traumatized by the horrors of World War II, Charlie returns from Europe resolved to shed his masculine identity and live full-time as a woman. As Charlene, she opens a beauty salon in the small town of Heaven, Ind., where she’s welcomed with open arms. For 18 years she manages to keep her secrets hidden—not just the fact of her biological sex, but also the secret love she harbors for her best friend. Maher deftly navigates Charlie/Charlene’s dual identities and vividly captures a complex inner struggle, but while Heaven shows a lot of promise as a setting, the rest of its residents feel more like caricatures of small-town Midwesterners. A stronger supporting cast might have made Charlene’s journey feel more vivid; still, the story is transportive. (Feb.)