Robin Talley, an emerging goliath presence in the LGBTQ+ young adult fiction community, is back at it again. Put on some Patti Smith and sit back for “Music From Another World,” which makes for a surprisingly fun (albeit sometimes tear-jerking) popcorn read, a rare achievement for epistolary historical fiction.
Most surprising about the novel’s lighthearted touch is that this charm endures despite “queerphobia” being a central theme. Set in 1970s California, the story is told through letters exchanged between Tammy Larson and Sharon Hawkins, both of whom are high school students at private Catholic schools that pair the two together for a pen pal project. Interspersed between the letters are the girls’ diary entries; for Tammy, these take the form of unsent letters addressed to Harvey Milk, the late gay rights activist and San Francisco city supervisor.
Tammy, who lives in Orange County, is a deeply closeted lesbian whose aunt is an avid supporter of real-life anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant and California Proposition 6 — a failed initiative from 1978 that would have, if passed, made it illegal for queer people to work at public schools. Sharon, whose brother is gay, becomes Tammy’s only confidante, and in turn, Tammy becomes Sharon’s as Sharon explores San Francisco’s Castro district. The girls bond over punk music, especially that of Patti Smith, and eventually begin questioning what they’ve been taught to believe.
Although the book is ultimately an enjoyable read, it isn’t without noticeable weaknesses. Aside from the two protagonists and Sharon’s brother, Peter, virtually the entire supporting cast is made up of caricatures with surface-level personalities. The side characters exist exclusively to serve neat narrative purposes, with no true sense of their lives beyond that.
This lack of in-depth characterization isn’t exclusive to the side characters. Tammy’s and Sharon’s voices initially seem indistinguishable from each other, the visual differences between their individual letters and diary entries acting as the only separating factor for the reader. As the book picks up in pace, however, the girls start to feel more concrete, and their increasingly bold voices lead us to an overall happy ending.
Despite these pitfalls, “Music From Another World” deserves a read because of its unique approach to depicting historical queerphobia. The book may or may not be an excuse to explore queerphobia and its personal impacts on queer teenagers of the time — which is perhaps why most of the characters feel so flat — but that Talley manages to explore this without being overly didactic is impressive. Talley never “info-dumps” historical context, instead trusting readers to put things together through her deft incorporation of small details.
When the girls get involved in gay rights activism, it feels authentic to read them recounting this involvement. This is part of the brilliance behind Talley’s approach to writing historical fiction: There must be some lingering desire to teach, but ultimately, the driving force behind “Music From Another World” seems to be a desire to capture how it must have felt to live during this time and, more specifically, to experience widespread queerphobia firsthand. The queerphobia depicted in the novel is notably never violent or gratuitous, adhering to historical accuracy without running the risk of alienating readers who don’t wish to see characters like themselves beaten or killed.
There is nary a supportive parent in the novel, but if there were, it might detract from the point — the characters are just a few of many who have been cut off from familial ties because they are queer. While Talley resists gratuity, she doesn’t render the time period into a utopia, either. By the end, “Music From Another World” makes clear that misery has never been the only experience allowed to a queer person, even if it’s a common one.
“Music From Another World” can be purchased on bookshop.org, a website that shares proceeds with small, independent bookstores. Alternatively, you can use bookstorelink.com to search for independent bookstores near you. Many bookstores in the Bay Area are currently offering delivery services and curbside pickup.