I don’t cover a lot of young adult fiction here; the other age groups keep me busy enough. I’m making an exception today, however, not only because I happen to know the author, but because the book is a rare YA novel that I found myself reading for my own sake, not just with an eye to how it would impact younger readers. It’s the queer historical fiction novel I never knew I wanted.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo (Dutton – Amazon
; Bookshop) is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1954. Seventeen-year-old Lily Hu lives with her immigrant parents and is active in the Chinese American community, but finds herself also looking beyond it. She wants to study rocket science, inspired by an aunt who worked as one of the women “calculators” for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. (The character is fictional, but the calculators were real.) And one day, Lily joins Kath, a White friend from her public high school, in sneaking off to the Telegraph Club, a lesbian bar with performances by a charismatic male impersonator (whom we would today call a “drag king”). Lily and Kath’s own relationship begins to bloom, even as the anti-Communist “Red Scare” tactics of Joseph McCarthy threaten Lily’s family’s security in this country.
I won’t go into more of the plot, for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that I found the story and the ending wonderfully satisfying. There’s just so much to like about this novel. Lo’s details about the Chinese American community and the lesbian community of the time are deeply researched but smoothly interwoven into the story; I could almost smell the foods she describes and the cigarette smoke in the bar. She captures the longing of first love and the uncertainty of coming out without making them into clichés. She writes with thoughtfulness about the tension between immigrant parents and their children who have grown up in America, without making Lily’s parents into caricatures. In fact, the parents’ stories, and how they impact their hopes and expectations for Lily, form an important thread of their own. Lo also shows how Lily encounters microaggressions even from the women at the Telegraph Club; she is keenly aware of the complexities of intersectionality. The serious topics never come across as pedantic, though; they are all just different threads of Lily’s identities and experiences, which combine to make her who she is and shape her interactions with the world.
Young queer teens deserve this lovely coming-of-age love story; they deserve the knowledge that queer people have a history that predates Stonewall and that our lives were (and are) as bound up as anyone’s in the social and political happenings of their community and country. They also deserve books that are as masterfully crafted as this one. I also wholeheartedly recommend it to adult readers looking for a queer love story or historical novel. Would that there had been books like this when we were growing up.
Lo and I went to the same college, but at different times; we’ve had some interaction through the queer alum group and I admit to some bias towards her writing. Don’t just take my word about the book, though; it’s gotten rave reviews everywhere I’ve looked. Shortlist this one for all the awards.
Watch Lo read a passage and talk about her inspirations for the book and some of the real history (and photos!) behind it, and share info about upcoming virtual events:
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