By Jessica Salfia
A few weeks in our COVID-19 isolation, I got a message from my friend Natalie Sypolt who wanted to know if I would review a book for the online literary magazine, Change Seven. (side note: Check out this magazine. It’s a treasure trove of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.)
I immediately agreed, anxious to lay eyes on a not yet released novel, and excited because I had heard so many good things about Sickels’ writing. My “assignment” was to read and write a Kirkus-style review.
(Confession: I have never written a Kirkus style book review before. I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew a good starting point would be to read the book and take good notes.)
So I made a cup of tea, grabbed a notebook and a good pen (pen-people, you know what I’m talking about), curled up in the corner of my couch, opened my laptop, and clicked open the digital copy of the book I had been sent.
And within minutes, all good intentions of thorough note-taking evaporated—I was gripped. The next day, my pen and paper lay forgotten on the floor, there were no notes. My tea sat cold and untouched still in the cup. And I was scrolling to the last page of the novel, curled around my laptop, a human puddle of tears. (My thirteen-year old came out of her room to ask me if I was ok, but I could only manage hiccup at her, “This. Book. So. Beautiful. So. Sad.” (She rolled her eyes, called me weird, but then asked me to let her read the book.)
I somehow managed to write my review for Change Seven. You can read that review here. (Though, I was in such as state, I very nearly sent them a word doc that only said “This book wrecked me. Everyone go read it right now.)
But I also wanted to give a lengthier reflection here on the blog because this is a novel that I think will make its way onto reading lists and into curriculums very quickly.
And it should. It’s a powerful and important book.
The Prettiest Star is the haunting and beautiful story of a homecoming set in 1986. Twenty four-year-old Brian had fled his small town in rural Appalachian Ohio because like so many other rural LGBTQ kids, his family rejected him. He made his way to New York where he found love, acceptance, and a chosen family, only to have this all wrenched from him by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. His community ravaged, his lover dead, and nothing left for him in New York but grief, Brian dying of the disease himself returns to the home he fled.
This story of LGBTQ youth rejection and displacement in Appalachia is not a story of the past. Just this week NPR published this article: Home But Not Safe, Some LGBTQ Young People Face Rejection From Families in Lockdown. The article cites this terrifying statistic: “Suicide and crisis hotline calls are now on a rapid rise at The Trevor Project, a large suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people. CEO Amit Paley says that since the onset of COVID-19 the volume of youth reaching out to The Trevor Project’s crisis services program has increased dramatically at times spiking to more than double the volumes from earlier in 2020.”
For many LGBTQ young people from our region, home is not, and never has been a haven.
Sickels’ novel is the story an earlier generation of young men who were forced home by a devastating illness and ostracization from society. Told from the alternating perspectives of Brian, his guilt-ridden mother: Sharon, and his teenage sister: Jess, Brian’s return home, like the homecomings so many young people in this region are experiencing now because of the COVID crisis, is fraught with anxiety and shame. But that anxiety and shame for Brian in 1986 is compounded with grief over the loss of his friends, his lover, his health, and eventually his own life. Brian does not return home to shelter in place. He returns home to die.
Brian says in the opening pages of the novel, “…I wrote my parents a letter. I didn’t know what I was going to tell them. I’ve known guys who were sick and went back to small towns all over the country—upstate New York, Kansas, Florida, Kentucky—and never said a word about what was wrong. They went back to their hometowns and died from a mysterious illness.”
Initially, Brian’s family decides to keep his condition a secret, his emotionally unavailable father acknowledging the situation by insisting that Brian use separate dishware and wash his clothes separately from the rest of the family. Brian must process his grief, his illness, and his own death alone while also navigating his family’s attempts to ignore not just his sexuality, but the fact that he’s dying from AIDS. But as is the way of most small towns, the news of Brian’s condition gets out and spreads through his family, his community, and their conservative church, and his family is now forced to confront their own biases, homophobia, and fear. Brian’s story wends between sadness and salvation, abandonment and acceptance. It is a story told with heart breaking beauty and consideration.
Through all of this, Brian is mostly alone, confused, sad, and scared. It’s not fair—none of it. As Brian tells us of his last truly happy night out with his best friend and his boyfriend: “This night, we thought then, was just one of many. This is what life was, and this is what our lives were supposed to be. I didn’t do anything to cause this—none of us did. We were just living. We were young, happy and alive, and nothing could stop us.”
The pages of this novel burn bright with emotion. We feel the injustice, the anger, the fear, the loneliness, and the desperate desire to be loved and accepted by his family with Brian all the way to the very end.
When I finished the book, I cued up YouTube (well, I cued up Youtube after I caught my breath, stopped weeping, and changed my tear and snot soaked shirt) and I listened to David Bowie’s song of the same name several times.
Bowie sings, “Staying back in your memory/ Are the movies in the past?/ How you moved is all it takes/ To sing a song of when I loved/ “The prettiest star.”
Brian’s story is a tragic a story. But it’s also a love story. And that love shines through the pages of Sickels’ prose like twinkling lights in the night sky.
For public educators in this region, especially those teachers working with teenagers, this novel is a must read. It’s not a coming of age story or a coming out story. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending. In fact, it broke me…several times. But this book is an important book—a story that needs to be told and a story that still resonates today. Author Silas House said of The Prettiest Star, “It’s the story of all of us—the story of America, then and now, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.”
Our LGBTQ young people in this region still face rejection and prejudice, and according to an NBC News article by James Michael Nichols: “In November, the Campaign for Southern Equality released its 2019 Southern LGBTQ Health Survey, and Beach-Ferrara said in Appalachia — where 17 percent of residents live below the poverty line — the survey found particular challenges for LGBTQ respondents around “finding stable employment where you’ll be treated fairly, where you’ll have some basic protections and where you can show up to be who you truly are.”
It is our duty, teachers to teach all kids, and there is a population of young folks in our region, kids in the hallways of your schools who are in desperate need additional support and love. Kids who need their stories told, who need their histories told, who need to see themselves reflected in literature. So whether you need to broaden your own understanding, or you’re looking to expand your classroom library, I would highly recommend you add The Prettiest Star to your summer reading list.
The Prettiest Star Carter Sickels Hub City Press May 2020 ISBN: 978-1-938235-62-7 288 pages HC: $27.00 Order now!