Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Ellen Klages’ short novel Passing Strange (2017) is a beautiful, fantastical melding of history, romance, magic and revenge, set against a meticulously researched San Francisco of 1940. At just over 200 hundred pages, the story follows six women in the city, each one in some way an outcast. Add a present-day story frame that includes secret passages in Chinatown, pulp magazine covers of the 1940s, and an elaborate scam, and for many of us you have something irresistible.
I loved Passing Strange from the cover by Gregory Manchess. That wistful moonlit scene is central to the story in more than one way. Take a moment to study that cover before you open the book, and then, when you’ve finished, feel free to go back and savor it some more.
In the present day, Helen Young, a retired judge, comes to a decision. Helen has had a long life and a good life, but before it ends there is one thing she must do. She goes to a building in Chinatown and makes her way into an underground passage where she retrieves a strange box. The point of view then shifts to antiquarian book dealer Marty Blake. Marty has just used the proceeds of a large score to rent a more respectable location for his business. He is known for rare finds but clearly his secret love is the pulps, and when a well-dressed elderly Asian-American woman comes to him with the deal to end all deals, he jumps at it. The woman says she has the never-before-seen final painting of the mysterious pulp cover artist Haskel. Haskel suddenly stopped creating cover art in 1940, but there has always been talk of one more cover, one more painting. Unlike the scantily clad women menaced by oriental villains or tentacled monsters, it turns out Haskel’s last picture is of a man and woman dancing in a skylit library, with a city visible through the long window behind them. And that painting, the Holy Grail for Haskel collectors, is within Marty’s grasp.
The story shifts to 1940. Helen Young, an American-Japanese, is a practicing lawyer who also dances at a night club to make ends meet. She is married to a gay Chinese man who needed marriage to an American citizen in order to stay in the US. She is friends with Babs and Franny, a lesbian couple. Babs is a mathematics lecturer who has to hide the fact that she and Franny live together. Franny practices a strange art that is a hybrid of magic and physics; she is able to fold space and create “short cuts” everywhere. (She uses a Mobius strip as a demonstration.) At a “salon” evening at the couple’s house, the reader meets Florence Haskel, an artist, who just goes by Haskel, and Emily Netterfield, a rebellious runaway from a New England blue-blood family.
This is a book about the love story of Emily and Haskel, told in prose that is sensuous, funny and sometimes sentimental; but it is also a love letter to San Francisco. Klages does not love the city blindly, and the plot of Passing Strange hinges in many places on the discriminatory laws of the time. A woman who is dressed completely as a man is breaking the law and will be jailed, for instance. The story also points out the inequities of heterosexual relationships as well. Our five heroines, and later Franny’s niece Polly, face various kinds of discrimination every single day. The club, The Forbidden City, where Helen dances is in Chinatown, but it caters to tourists and the MC does a string of nasty anti-Chinese jokes every night. Mona’s, the lesbian club where Emily sings, pays protection money but is still not safe from the police. Still, the story revels in the beauty of San Francisco and even takes us on a nostalgic tour of Treasure Island during the World’s Fair.
Things seem too good to be true for Haskel and Emily, and of course they are. Haskel’s wandering husband Len returns and brings trouble. The trouble gets worse and solutions vanish, until Haskel and Emily must put their trust in magic — and their friends.
In between the clever banter, the descriptions of the city, and the romantic moments, Klages gives us little bites of this everyday 1940s world: a pizza place where the women get carry-out; a lesson in how to make a fixative for pastels by boiling fish-bones; the realism of the corner store and the corner newsstand. Haskel and Emily are unapologetic smokers, accurate for the time, and the women are more likely to call a pizza a “pie” than a pizza.
The nature of racism and homophobia at the time is discussed, not in an academic way, but as part of the character’s lives. The piano player at Mona’s is jailed for six months, not for punching a customer, which she did, but for binding her breasts and wearing boxers instead of women’s underpants. Clearly, the only way Vice could know whether a cross-dressing woman had the required three pieces of “feminine” clothing was by making her strip at least to her underwear. Helen was born in Coos Bay, Oregon (as she calls it, “exotic Coos Bay”), but she is American-Japanese, so she uses her husband’s last name and everyone assumes she is Chinese. She poses for the oriental villains on Haskel’s pulp covers… and oriental villains are very common. Franny and Babs discuss the war in Europe and the refugees who are coming to America, and the shadow of our involvement in the war hangs over this story throughout.
I loved the cleverness of the magical solution, and this short book is perfectly structured. We had been left, in the frame story, with Marty, a bad man who needs dressing down, and as the 1940’s story progressed I started giggling when the characters discussed the resolutions, and didn’t stop all the way to the perfect final sentence. Retelling classic fairy tales is common right now, but I think Passing Strange may be its own fairy tale, a fairy set in my favorite magical city.
Marion, this sounds wonderful! I’ll definitely need to add this to my library at some point soon.
Can confirm Jana, it is an incredible read.
I’ve been trying to drum up a review for a couple weeks now! Definitely recommend. Great review Marion :)
I’ve now added this to my to read list. Sounds fascinating!
sounds like a lot packed into a small package–thanks!