Earth As It Is
Charlie/Charlene Bader is a heterosexual cross-dresser who struggles through the humiliating break-up of a marriage, migrates to Chicago during the Depression where s/he discovers a supportive community of cross-dressers, serves as a dentist in World War II, and ultimately ends up in a small town in Indiana, living as a woman and working as a hairdresser. Her life becomes complicated when she realizes she has fallen in love with a customer who does not know of her male identity.
"Transportive." —Publishers Weekly
"A captivating novel." —Historical Novel Society
"Deserves a place on library shelves." —Booklist
Kirkus Reviews 100 Best Indies of 2017
Winner - American Fiction Awards 2018 - LBGTQ
Finalist - Foreword Indie Award - LGBT
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Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A small-town hairdresser is not quite what she seems in this novel of life under cover.
Charlie Bader, a dentist living in Dallas in 1933, is happily married until his wife catches him lounging in her nightgown doing his nails. She runs off to New Boston, Texas, to train for missionary work in Africa. He relocates to Chicago, where he finds a circle of secretly cross-dressing men—most of whom, like him, are staunchly heterosexual—who give him fashion advice, invite him to drag teas, help him cultivate a high-pitched lilt, and call him “Charlene.” But Charlie’s life is still lonely, as he feels unable to approach a woman, for fear she will discover his hidden passion and reject him. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he emerges feeling even further alienated from his manhood. He goes to the town of Heaven, Indiana, to live as a woman, use well-honed makeover skills to open a hairstyling and manicure salon. Charlie’s perspective shifts from studying womanhood through the eyes of a man to connecting more intimately with it through the lives of Charlene’s customers. Her beauty shop becomes a gathering place for the ladies of Heaven to trade gossip, hatch plans, and share confidences with the always sympathetic and discreet Charlene. She initially basks in Heaven’s seeming quiet and orderliness, but tension builds as she falls in love with a customer, knowing that she might be run out of town if she voices her feelings.
Maher (Heaven, Indiana, 2000, etc.) treats Charlene’s story with sensitivity and nuance, letting it entwine organically with the life of the town that first appeared in her previous novel. Charlie’s early exploration of femininity is portrayed as less sexual than sensual, consisting of a fascination with elegant outfits, perfectly poised manners, and the seductive tactile pleasure of women’s clothing: “The silkiness felt exquisite and forbidding, soothing and terrible, comforting and dangerously damning.” The author’s limpid prose also captures the subtleties of women’s lives, from catty fencing —“Elizabeth Tipton had a way of complimenting you, Minnie thought, that almost made you feel like she didn’t take you seriously”—to a 10-year-old’s clumsy stabs at sophistication to the exasperated kindness of a daughter caring for her parents. The writing is suffused with deadpan humor but resists caricatures; Charlene balances her furtive yearnings with sober restraint, and her customers aren’t small-minded yokels, but complex, curious people who are willing to expand their horizons. Heaven is a richly textured place of church socials, quilting and pie-making contests at the county fair, and neighborly help for families burdened by sickness and age. But there are darker elements, as well, such as a con man who threatens to expose Charlene, and a mystery involving a teenage girl who died after giving birth to a now-missing child. In Maher’s tapestry, the unconventional, even subversive, impulses of misfits and “ordinary” folk find a place in a convincing whole.
A quietly luminous tale of folksy gender-bending that’s entertaining and authentic.
Midwest Book Review
A superbly crafted novel by an exceptionally skillful storyteller, 'Earth As It Is' reveals author Jan Maher's genuine flair for a fully engaging originality.
Earth As It Is Jan Maher. Indiana Univ., $20 trade paper (276p) ISBN 978-0-253-02404-6 Maher’s debut is a satisfyingly complex character study exploring gender identity in the postwar Midwest. Charlie Bader has always been drawn to the softer textures of women’s clothing—a shameful secret that, when he was a young man, cost him his marriage. In 1933, Charlie leaves small-town Texas for Chicago, where, for the first time, he dares to venture out in public as a woman. He finds kinship in the Full Self Sisterhood, a secret organization of like-minded individuals—some of whom live fully as women, others who dress up only recreationally. Traumatized by the horrors of World War II, Charlie returns from Europe resolved to shed his masculine identity and live full-time as a woman. As Charlene, she opens a beauty salon in the small town of Heaven, Ind., where she’s welcomed with open arms. For 18 years she manages to keep her secrets hidden— not just the fact of her biological sex, but also the secret love she harbors for her best friend. Maher deftly navigates Charlie/ Charlene’s dual identities and vividly captures a complex inner struggle, but while Heaven shows a lot of promise as a setting, the rest of its residents feel more like caricatures of small-town Midwesterners. A stronger supporting cast might have made Charlene’s journey feel more vivid; still, the story is transportive. (Feb.)
Publishers Weekly, 00000019, 11/14/2016, Vol. 263, Issue 46
Copyright (c) Publishers Weekly PWxyz LLC. Used by permission.
"Flawless. Whenever I really love a book I feel like I have to play it cool in my reviews because I don't want to seem overly fawning or gushing or fake." (read more)
"This is a brilliant tale which could have easily slipped into the grotesque, but Maher handles every character, every situation, every nuanced detail with the simplicity and grace which a setting like Heaven, Indiana deserves." (read more)
"A superbly crafted novel by an exceptionally skillful storyteller, Earth As It Is reveals author Jan Maher's genuine flair for a fully engaging originality. While very highly recommended for community and academic library LGBTQ fiction collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that Earth As It Is is also available in a digital book format.
Midwest Book Review
"[A] satisfyingly complex character study exploring gender identity in the postwar Midwest...the story is transportive. "
"Earth As It Is is a complex and deeply emotional novel which explores a rarely discussed aspect of gender identity in the post-war Midwest...A captivating novel that attempts to bring a softer perspective to gender identity. It is definitely worth reading."
"Both loving and heartbreaking, Earth As It Is lends a new perspective to an ongoing dialogue. Jan Maher's Earth As It Is is a heartfelt story about an extraordinary life."
4 out of 5 stars
Earth As It Is is the first book I'm reviewing and I've seen praise for the authors work in between recieving the book and reading it. I had high expectations and Jan Maher did not disappoint in any regard.
The book tells the genuinely touching and heartfelt story of a man, who while we may not share his inclinations as a crossdresser, we can immediately relate to on a human level. Our main character, Charlie Bader, struggles, as so many of us struggle, to find his way in the world and struggles to be understood for who he really is. It's often said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about and Maher captures this absolutely masterfully. She balances Charlie's inner struggles with his crossdressing desires, his personal affections and his wants and needs in a way that any reader can empathise with and in a way that makes you question how you too would deal with them. The relationships and situations are exceptionally well developed and I admit no shame to tearing up several times into the story, particularly in the sections regarding Charlie and his sister and a later character and her mother and father. I'm sure I wouldn't be alone in that regard as Maher manages to make these people feel real with only a relatively short amount of words.
I'm hard pressed to find issues with the story and most of the issues I can find are mostly nitpicks with information rather than anything wrong with the story itself. At one point conflict in Belgium is referred to as 'The Eastern Front' rather than 'The Western Front as it was.' and some people anachronistically treat Hitler with the modern viewpoint of History's greatest monster rather than simply 'The enemy' as he would have been seen around the period of Pearl Harbour as the full extent of the holocaust would not have been common knowledge yet to my own memory. These are minor issues though and in no way detract from the story as a whole.
A minor problem with the storytelling as a whole for me personally is with the fact the story takes place over large time jumps. Obviously this is necessary as it would make the book exceptionally long to cover every event of Charlie/Charlene's life, but it gets jarring when characters you've never heard of are introduced all of a sudden and disappear just as fast. There were one or two times where I had to stop and think if I knew who the characters were as I'd had no introduction to them at all and so found my ability to care about their problems suffered in this regard. I was occasionally in the position where I had to consider a situation to be horrible by my knowledge of that situation, rather than any link to the character. This is a real shame as with Maher's brilliant ability to bring characters to life, I'm sure these moments would have been even bigger gut punches than they were.
Aside from this, the only major issue that does detract from the story as a whole in my opinion is the decision to reveal Charlie/Charlene's death in the first chapter. This, in my opinion, robs some of the punch in the gut that could have been achieved by putting it at the end as there are several scenes where you can't hope for a good life for Charlie/Charlene after the story concludes as you know he doesn't have much time left to live, relatively speaking. This was rather disappointing to me as a reader and I constantly thought back to it whilst I was reading as to how so many events would be more powerful if I didn't know he'd not survive till the end of the book and whilst his death and funeral is powerful, I'm not sold on it being in the prologue. Knowing the main character is going to die in the book put somewhat of a downer knowing he'd die at the end.
But then again, is that not life, knowing it's one day going to close? And Earth as it is is nothing if not the tale of a very extraordinary life. Among her other talents, and they are many, Jan Maher manages to capture something that too few people seem to realise - simply telling the story of someone's life can be endlessly fascinating. There are no heroes in this story. No villains, no grand scheme to unravel and no world ending plots to foil. And there didn't need to be. Maher's story is something deeper, something stronger and something more quintessentially human. It's the struggle for identity. The fight with society and with oneself to be comfortable in your own skin. To know who you are and what you are and to be okay with it. There are many ways in which Charlie Bader is different from us, but he also IS us. Whether as Charlie Bader or Charlene Bader we feel the struggles, we feel the triumphs and we feel the losses. This book made me care for Charlie Bader and the people around him and made me want to see them happy, even knowing the ending. I can whole heartedly tell you that you will care for the main characters too.
Maher delivers an incredibly deep, thought provoking tale that is both genuinely moving and heart warmingly charming in less space than some take to set up their plot. She's an excellent writer and Earth as it is is what I hope to be the first in a long line of her works to read and I couldn't give it any less than an 8/10.
John Whitman, Amazon UK