My review of Something Better than Home originally appeared at The BLLC Review.
Something Better than Home by Leona Beasley is coming of age story about a young Black lesbian growing up in the post-Civil Rights era South. At first glance this book doesn’t seem like young adult fiction, but it is, and I wish that it had been labeled as such. Stories like Onnie Armstrong’s are scarce but necessary and the potential for reaching the young people who NEED to read this book might be greater if it were categorized as YA. A caveat: This book contains a graphic rape scene, as well as violence against women and girls, and homophobia.
“While most girls wanted to be princesses or queens, I wanted to be a king. Kings lived in castles, rode horses, and traveled to foreign lands. Nobody made them wear frilly Southern dresses or pick up their toys. Nobody tied ribbons in their hair or made them wear shoes. Being a king was better than being Jesus, and blood didn’t seem to be involved, so in 1967 at the age of six, I declared myself ‘King Onnie of the Backyard.’” Thus begins the first chapter of this novel, and the reader is immediately aware that Onnie is completely aware of who she is and what she wants. Even at six years old, she is keenly aware that being a girl limits her potential for adventure, and decides to become a king, expanding her possibilities.
The novel opens with a prologue (more on that later), and the bulk of the story is tasked with relating Onnie’s adventures, most of which reveal her as a bit stubborn, a little reckless, and in constant conflict with her parents. In other words, Onnie is like most kids. However, she is different in a couple of really interesting ways: First, Onnie’s adopted parents are nearly old enough to be her grandparent’s, and their old school style of parenting is overbearing and restrictive, and the site of most of the conflict in the book. Onnie also knows from an early age that she is gay; her parents know it too, and do everything they can do discourage it.
Beasley does a great job of crafting a novel that centers the blue-collar experience in Eleven-Light City (Atlanta, Georgia) although we are not privy to the origins of the city’s nickname until the end of the book. It’s clear that Beasley knows and loves Atlanta, and anyone who’s ever lived in the city will immediately recognize the landmarks depicted in the novel. Rich’s department store (now Macy’s, and where my sister landed her first job after moving to Atlanta in 1990), Peachtree Street, the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, the Pink Pig (still a big deal during the holidays), and other landmarks situate the reader firmly in the city, and it becomes as much a character as Onnie and her friends.
The novel grapples with class issues, (particularly Atlanta’s ‘blue-blood’ Blacks and their utter contempt of the working class), colorism, racism, and adolescent heartbreak, but where the novel shines is in its characters. Beasley is a master at painting an authentic portrait of Onnie and her teenage angst, as well as her elderly, overbearing mother, and their always-strained relationship. Secondary and tertiary characters are drawn just as fully as the primary characters. Beasley also does a good job of tackling tough themes, particularly rape and its aftermath, as well as reminding us that gay and lesbian characters are always already an integral part of southern culture, even if some of us don’t want to admit it.
Earlier I promised a little more on the prologue, and here are my thoughts on that: It’s unnecessary. Neither the prologue nor epilogue add anything meaningful to the story; in fact, the epilogue is so unsatisfactory as to nearly ruin the ending for me. Other readers may of course feel differently. Another small quibble is the use of certain language that seems a little anachronistic. Beasley’s occasional positive use of queer seems a bit out place, as the term had not yet been reclaimed yet, and during this time the word was still largely pejorative. My only other critique is that the story drags in a couple places, but that is not uncommon in a first novel, nor does it detract from the story.
Overall, as a daughter of the South, I enjoyed this novel and wish that it had been around when I was growing up. It’s been a long time since a novel brought me to tears, but I’ll admit to shedding a few while reading chapter eleven. Read this novel, and give it to your children, your nieces and nephews, and any young Black people who need to see themselves depicted in queer stories of the South.