Tuesday, December 17, 2019

31 Days Of CCS #17: Melanie Gillman

Melanie Gillman's As The Crow Flies has piled up the awards, in part because their depiction of queer youth in a religious setting at a camp felt so painfully real. Gillman has a lot of equipment in their artistic toolbox, and they use every one for good effect. First, Gillman focuses on character detail. Who they are, what they like, if they're shy or outgoing, their racial identities, social background, etc. While Gillman naturally features queer characters who go through experiences identifiable to their readers, it's those details that truly bring them to life. Second, whatever setting Gillman happens to choose for their stories, they clearly research it fastidiously. The religious camp in As The Crow Flies felt so very lived in, whether that was from personal experience or simply asking the right people the right questions. In their new book, Stage Dreams, Gillman shares their research into the Civil War, its impact on the western US, and stories of queer and trans people at the time. Third, Gillman's painstaking use of colored pencils gives them total mastery of mood and tone in their stories. In a book with a lot of sweeping desert vistas, colored pencils had the desired effect of overwhelming, sheer beauty.

Aside from all that, Gillman's just a crack storyteller with a solid use of dialogue. In a shorter book like Stage Dreams, things zip along quickly without sacrificing character development. The story is set in the New Mexico territory in 1861 as the Confederacy is making advances in their effort to take the California territory and its resources. A bandit known as the Ghost Hawk is terrorizing stagecoaches, while a young trans woman named Grace is fleeing conscription into the rebel army. In a series of swift moves, The Ghost Hawk (aka Flor) robs a stagecoach and kidnaps Grace. When it becomes clear that Grace is trans and has no money, a scheme is hatched to crash a Confederate party and to steal some plans. Along the way, there are clothes to be altered as part of the plan (leading to a fascinating scene in the shop of a sympathetic tailor) and a budding romance between Flor and Grace.

The climactic party loops a character introduced earlier into the plot as a catalyst for the key action scenes. As Gillman notes in their endnotes, women made great spies in the Civil War because most men didn't take their presence seriously. The way Gillman uses and then subverts gender assumptions cleverly moves the plot along at key moments, and the romantic denouement feels well-earned. The result is a fun genre mash-up that never forgets the oppression and erasure faced by queer people of this era. It's a celebration of trans people in particular and the ways in which they found and find ways to survive and thrive. The fine details of Gillman's research only make the story richer and more authentic. The story isn't as profound or personal as As The Crow Flies, but it isn't meant to be. Stage Dreams is a light, breezy bit of historical fiction whose underlying themes and realities give it poignancy.

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