Book Cover for Charity by Paulette CallenFalling through the rabbit hole and finding the Old West

This is a story set in the “Old West” during the 1900s in South Dakota, where author Paulette Callen has her roots. And on every page, the author’s love for the prairie, the early settlers, and the Sioux shines through and makes Charity an extraordinary reading experience. You’ll meet Gustie Roemer, a lesbian, who left her settled life in the East with her love to be free of conventions; you’ll meet Jordis, a two-spirit woman from the Sioux nation, scarred by the White Man’s education; you’ll meet Dorcas Manyroads, the spiritual grandmother of the tribe, and you’ll meet those sturdy early European settlers who weather the hardships of the prairie. Lena Kaiser is one of those settlers. She forges an unlikely friendship with Gustie, and through her eyes, we see the good and the bad of a close-knit community out West. Since Gustie is connected both to the European and the Sioux community, Callen manages masterfully to have the reader get a glimpse at both cultures and at the frictions between them.

I love it when history becomes herstory, i.e. when an author places lesbians into history. Because undoubtedly there always have been lesbians around, but we very rarely hear about them. Enter Gustie and Jordis. And again Callen places the two with unerring historical accuracy into the story. Those were not the times for rainbow flags and pride marches, and sex was definitely not a topic you talked about, be it straight or otherwise, so the “lesbian” angle is told low-key, but with a quiet and insistent intensity, which gets more and more under the skin of the reader. And Gustie Roemer and Jordis stand out for their courage in more than one way and are at the same time part of a larger historical context.

Let me add that Callen’s penmanship grabbed my attention from the very first moment with her almost lyrical prose which made the descriptions of the prairie, the first frost, the deer, the horses, the night lit by stars a joy to read. The land itself is definitely an additional “character” in this novel, a novel filled with many wonderful characters, a novel that shows the good and the bad! Callen catches the “spirit” of the Midwest with settlers, their daily life, “Indians”, the curses and blessings of families, living as a lesbian, the bigotry of the times with masterful strokes and delivers a rich tapestry which enthrals the reader – as does the beautiful cover of the book.