In 2010 my first novel, Crown of Dust, was among several books under consideration for a county reads program. It was dismissed after a small, vocal group of parents decided the content inappropriate. Had they read the book? Well, no. But they’d heard it was set in brothel, and the tagline provided by my publisher – “A gender bending story of love, friendship and redemption” – no doubt put them off.
It is true that the main character of the book is young woman who disguises herself as a man. And money is exchanged for sex. But if you’re hoping for a bodice buster, you’re out of luck. Crown of Dust is a coming of age story about identity, redemption, betrayal, and friendship. It features strong women surviving as best they can in a ramshackle settlement of men. Sexuality is part of the story, but not the story. (And really, if those parents wanted to strip the county of sexual references, they might have started by repainting the walls of the high school girls locker room.)
Set in California during the Gold Rush, my novel dramatizes the ways in which people on the western frontier established their own conventions of behavior suitable to their circumstances. It reveals that human love has never been restricted by gender and that, for better or worse, sex has always been a commodity, a source of female power and vulnerability. I write about these things because they are true, and not even particularly revelatory. I honor the presence and stories of strong women, gay men, and black men in a place and time from which they had been excised. There are a great many more stories yet to tell.
History is messy and more complex (and entertaining) than the tidy textbook myths we create to contain it. Crown of Dust revels in the mess and complexity, and for that reason suffered a fate far more common than a ban: quiet dismissal by a small minority of people who prefer their history sterilized, processed and vetted to resemble their own biases.