Thirty years ago, Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden was a groundbreaking book, the first novel written about a homosexual couple that had a happy ending. I picked it up recently when I saw it at the library on the power of a friend’s recommendation that I had been meaning to act on for several years. When I read it, I didn’t know anything about it except that it had been published in 1982 and that my friend thought it was good, if a little slow in parts.
Read that way, Annie on My Mind is a sweet story that seems balanced on the edge of a lot of things: the border between realistic fiction and historical fiction, the divide between current language and older modes of speaking, and, most importantly, the edge of relevance.
It is set in late 70s or early 80s in New York City. It was realistic fiction when it was written, but it seems closer to historical fiction now. Technically, it probably cannot be considered historical fiction, as historical fiction deals with actual historic figures and events, but that may not make a difference to a young reader who is looking for stories about herself, about her or his friends, about her or his world. When you haven’t lived 30 years yourself, 30 years ago can seem close to forever ago.
The language used to tell the story is simple enough, plain enough, that it isn’t odd to read, yet. It isn’t like Shakespeare, which requires translation from an older form of English to a newer one, 30 years isn’t enough to transform the language that much, but there is a sense that it is older writing, that an author writing today wouldn’t phrase the sentences quite the same way.
Along the same lines, the story opens with the main character, Liza, writing a letter, with a pen in a notebook, to the title character, Annie. There is no computer in sight, no email, just pen and paper and events that Liza finally, after six months, wants to remember. The main story is framed in this way; the book begins and ends and is interspersed with short sections in third person describing Liza in her dorm at MIT writing her letter. The bulk of the story is Liza’s first person account of how she met Annie and why they haven’t communicated in six months. This narrative structure is interesting, but it results in a rather abrupt ending – two pages of reconnection after the whole book about Annie and Liza’s relationship and how it fell apart. This is not particularly unusual for the romance genre, but I have always found it the most frustrating aspect of romances: all the trouble and heartbreak of the previous two hundred pages can be fixed by a little talk in the last two pages. Additionally, the letter writing in the frame also marks the book as older and perhaps less relevant to today’s reader.
The entire time I was reading the book, I wondered how many young people in the US still have to deal with the issues Liza and Annie face, how relevant the issues are: not really knowing what it means to be gay/lesbian, not having a word to describe the feelings they are developing, risking expulsion from a private school for being homosexual, watching teachers get fired for being lesbian, having someone out them to their parents and classmates. A lot of things have changed in the last 30 years and it seems likely that many young readers will identify with the love story but not the challenges the protagonists face. Additionally, there is a lot more lesbian fiction available, making it easier for readers to find books that speak much more directly to current experiences.
The 2007 commemorative edition, which happens to be the edition I picked up, has an interview with the author Nancy Garden, which is beneficial to put book in its historic context. Garden explains in the interview that while there were some books for young adults featuring lesbian or gay characters available in the early 1980s, none of them had happy endings. Annie on My Mind is groundbreaking for that reason, it bucked the trend of unhappy endings for LGBTQ people. Garden says in the interview, “In addition to the fact that having unhappy endings was for years the only way authors could write about homosexuality and get published, I also think that showing homosexuals as victims was sometimes an attempt to demonstrate how cruelly gay people often were (and sometimes still are) treated, rather than a way of implying gay people were weak or deserving of punishment.” But she didn’t want to do that, she wanted to write a book that told the truth about LGBTQ people, “that we’re not sick or evil; that we can and do fall in love and lead happy, healthy, productive lives,” the kind of literature that young people look for when they are struggling to understand their sexualities and to overcome the challenges that still so frequently go along with being anything other than straight.
I think it is fair to say that young adult literature would not look like it does today if it weren’t for Annie on My Mind. Whether the issues addressed are of personal relevance or you just enjoy the sweet love story, Annie on My Mind is still relevant and worth the read.
Queerview Mirror is a semi-regular feature where Queereka contributors review a variety of media. Look for Queerview Mirror posts on Friday afternoons.