When a queer task force from Los Angeles drops its house on Big Burr, Kansas, the most homophobic town in America, the lives of the townspeople, and those of the Wicked Activists of the West, are turned upside down. Celia Laskey’s debut novel-in-stories, Under the Rainbow, circulates through the voices of this fictional town’s community—both the task force members and the lifers—as they grapple with their own personal versions of a brave new world. Both light and heavy, dark and redeeming, this book is sure to be a comfort and resource for many, as we try to bridge the growing gap between “coastal elites” and “flyover states.”
Celia Laskey has a real skill for voice, which is important in a book that mind-hops from one narrator to the next. This is especially crucial in Under the Rainbow, since we only hear from each character once (save for one exception!). But through Laskey’s development of their individual voices, we get a clear sense of who these people are: a straight, fifteen-year-old girl ripped from the diversity bubble of Los Angeles by her lesbian mom; a gay man who struggles with his partner’s elderly father moving in. Laskey creates unique voices that allow us to quickly grasp who these people are, what they want, and how they fit into the tapestry of Big Burr…and how they don’t.
The town itself is an important piece of the story, too, and Laskey captures both the matter-of-fact details of daily life in a rural town, like deer hunting and cow insemination, and the more nuanced emotional dynamics at play in a place where everyone knows each other. As soon as the activists touch down in Big Burr, the curtains pull back on everything that has gone unsaid: shame, infidelity, grief, and resentment. But we soon learn it isn’t only the residents of Big Burr who keep secrets from one another: just one of many ways the townsfolk and activists are more alike than any of them care to admit.
There’s no shortage of big action in Under the Rainbow, either. A housewife sets a billboard on fire as her own marriage burns to the ground. Two teenagers’ plans are thwarted by a horrible accident. A man takes a risk after years in the closet, only to fear for his life when a gun is drawn. As a reader and writer of fiction that’s often quiet, with most of the action happening internally, Laskey’s fearlessness on the page in creating these splashy scenes was fun to read for a change. While I mostly love the book’s structure, I think at times the rotating points of view hamstrings these moments of action, since the drama is either left unresolved or we get the outcome secondhand in another narrator’s chapter.
The most important question an author should ask themselves, when writing a book with this unique structure, is: who deserves a voice? In general, Laskey makes some really good choices in this regard. There are, of course, stories here that are more compelling than others, and I’m sure everyone will have their own personal favorites. I found myself wanting more of the mother whose teenage son recently died in a car accident, and the man whose wife leaves him for another woman. I didn’t get enough of these characters and kept flipping ahead to see if they came back around.
I also wondered why other pivotal characters didn’t get their time to shine at all, like the leader of the entire activist initiative. I wanted to know what she was thinking and feeling as certain devastating events unfolded; she is to thank, and to blame, for so much that happens in this book, but we never hear from her. I would’ve taken fewer narrators in exchange for a deeper focus on the most compelling stories. But perhaps we’ll see more of Big Burr’s residents in the future from Laskey? Only time will tell.
Under the Rainbow is a very queer book, which scores big points in my heart, but I didn’t feel like it was written for me. Please understand: this is completely fine. But the themes were a little heavy handed for my taste at times. There is a lot of explicit homophobia, but the most over-the-top bigots are never given a chapter, so they come off as irredeemable stereotypes. Even some of the queer characters feel two-dimensional: the gay men are often physically fit, wear tight floral shirts, and quote Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. (There’s also one cringey scene that involves a Black gay man teaching a cishet white woman about “no tea, no shade” and “reading.”) The task force leader is mostly painted as a man-hating lesbian who cheers for women to divorce their husbands. Saddest of all is the nonbinary character, who grew up with an alcoholic, neglectful parent and has the most horrible hate crime of the book, in my opinion, visited upon them.
This book will be great for younger queer folks, or even the straight parents of queer folks who want learn more about their kids’ world: people who need a little extra information with their entertainment. For example, the characters often casually spout off statistics about hate crimes or gender nonconformity in the middle of a conversation. Stuff like that feels like an obvious attempt to educate me about things I already know. It reminds me a little of Glee at times. The show started off very tongue-in-cheek and satirical, but when it became clear the audience was younger than anticipated, it turned into one Very Special Episode after the next, hitting its viewers over the head with important lessons every week. As an older queer lady, the show was no longer for me, and that was okay, because it helped and educated the people who truly needed it.
I hope the folks who need Under the Rainbow find it. Even though it wasn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed getting to know Laskey’s characters and watching them change over the course of the novel. Bonus points for a gay happy ending! We need more of those in the world.