Helen Young is on a mission, a final mission before she dies. It's a secret she's held close for many years, one born of love and magic. A secret rooted in a promise made one night, long ago, in San Francisco.
The year was 1940 and the time was not kind to Helen and her friends. But San Francisco allowed them some freedom, especially a bar called Mona's. There, Helen and her friends could enjoy drinks and entertainment alongside the tourists who came to see the novelty of women dressed as men. The Circle - Helen, a lawyer; Franny, a mapmaker with more than a little magic on her side; her lover, Babs; Haskel, an artist known for pulp magazine covers; and Emily, aka Spike, a singer - knew all too well the difficulties and politics of their era. But none of them expected a very real threat to one of their own. And so, they banded together to form a plan. A plan that wouldn't come fully to fruition until generations had passed.
Passing Strange is a tale about love and the lengths you'll go to to protect the ones closest to you. But it's also an homage to the history of San Francisco.
Set against the backdrop of the World's Fair, Klages deftly brings this bygone era of The City by the Bay to vivid life. Through the eyes of Helen, Haskel, and Emily, Klages gives readers a taste of the magic of the fair, Chinatown, and even the food (oh, the food!) as well as the social atmosphere of the day.
And while magic plays a role in the tale, it takes a bit of a backseat to the rest of those elements. In particular the rules and restrictions the group live by day to day. Today, we're lucky enough to realize these laws are unfair, to say the least, and actually pretty ridiculous by any standard. But to break these rules and get caught was a risk for anyone in their position. The women, all lesbians or at least bi, were considered deviants by society's mores, which we know wouldn't begin to change during most of their lifetimes.
And yet, it doesn't stop them from living their lives.
And it's just one of the facets of these characters, one piece of the whole that Klages has built for each of them. Helen, as mentioned, is a lawyer at a time when women definitely weren't respected in that profession (or most any). Polly, who we meet later on in the story, is Franny's cousin, an obviously brilliant girl who wants to study science but is limited to universities that will actually admit women. Haskel practices her profession anonymously, as time makes it clear, with most assuming the artist responsible for her work was a man.
I loved these characters and their story. To be honest, though, they had to win me over a bit. We meet Helen at the start, in present day, and it's clear she's up to something. Something in no small part that includes a bit of revenge. And I adored her! Just absolutely adored her! I was prepared to spend the whole novella alongside her, and was a bit disappointed when that wasn't the case. Bravo to Klages for introducing a character that elicited that strong of a response pretty immediately! Fortunately it didn't take long for me to realize that each of Klages characters would win me over the same way Helen had.
There are dark undertones to Passing Strange. And not subtle ones either. But like the magic, they take something of a backseat to the endearing love story that's at the heart of the tale.