“Delivered with such conviction and grace … fresh … essential.” —The New York Times Book Review
When outsiders on a mission arrive to change a small town’s attitudes, residents and newcomers alike end up transformed.
Big Burr, Kansas is the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone—or so they think. But when a national nonprofit labels Big Burr “the most homophobic town in the U.S.” and sends in a queer task force to live and work there for two years, no one is prepared for what will ensue.
Still grieving the death of her son, Linda welcomes the newcomers, who know mercifully little about her past. Teenage Avery, furious at being uprooted from her life in L.A. and desperate to fit in at her new high school, fears it’s only a matter of time before her classmates discover her mom is the head of the task force. And Gabe, an avid hunter who has lived in Big Burr his whole life, suddenly feels as if he’s in the crosshairs.
As tensions roil the town, cratering relationships and bringing difficult truths to light, both long time residents and new arrivals must reconsider what it means to belong. Told with warmth and wit, Under the Rainbow is a poignant, hopeful articulation of our complicated humanity and the ways we can learn to live with each other and ourselves.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.42(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I'm sitting in second-period biology, where I should be diagramming a chain of DNA but instead I'm diagramming something way more fascinating: the back of Jake Strommer's neck. The spot where his light brown hair meets his suntanned skin looks like a bird in flight, with two arches connecting in a V in the center. I imagine what it would be like to reach out and touch it, trailing my fingertips down to where his skin gradually pales at the rim of his gray, frayed T-shirt. I'd pull the shirt off with my teeth-I'd rip it right in half-then I'd kiss my way down his spine, stopping at each bony knob. When I get to the two dimples at the base of his back, my hetero shame hits.
Hetero shame: noun \he-t-r\ fishm\
: fear of coming out as heterosexual to your lesbian mom who you know wishes you were a lesbian, too
That's right-I'm a straight fifteen-year-old girl with moms who basically raised me like a dog-show poodle to be the most perfect lesbian ever, with just the right amount of feminist theory and fall flannels and whale watching. Not that there's any whale watching here, and not that my moms are even together anymore.
A few weeks ago I moved from Los Angeles with my mom Karen and my brother Cory to Big Burr, Kansas, a charming little hamlet of ten thousand people that has definitively been labeled the Most Homophobic Town in the U.S. Try not to be too jealous. The "most homophobic" thing is for real-this huge LGBTQ nonprofit called Acceptance Across America had a whole process for how they narrowed it down.
They started by looking at which states had the most hate crimes and conversion therapy and all that fun stuff, then they combed through people's social media and saw who was dumb enough to publicly say things like, "I hate faggots" or "Choke on a dick, you dyke," then once they had a few front-runners they visited the towns, incognito, to see what was up. Big Burr was the clear winner.
Finally, in an exciting experiment to see if bigots can be transformed into reasonable people, Acceptance Across America sent a task force to actually live in Big Burr. A task force that my mom promptly volunteered to be the head of, which brings me to how I found myself in this classroom. I'm pretty sure they're hoping the task force will work like that old MTV show The Real World: This is the true story of fifteen queers and lefties, picked to live in the most homophobic town in America, to work with its residents and find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.
We're supposed to stay in Big Burr for two fucking years. My other mom, Steph, was not down for the ride. She's the head of programming at Netflix and wasn't about to move to what she calls "the grundle of the United States." My moms fought nonstop for the six months before we left about whose work was more Important with a capital I and whether my brother Cory and I would stay or go. Since Steph travels all the time for work, they decided we had to go with Karen. I threw a shit fit, which obviously didn't change the outcome, but Cory said he didn't mind going. He said he thought it was "important to his development" to "experience how queer people are treated in other parts of the country."
Did I mention Cory is essentially a seventeen-year-old Dan Savage? At our high school in L.A. he had a column called "The Fag Rag" and he starred in the theater group's renditions of The Birdcage and A Chorus Line. He and Karen are two peas. All of this is why I'm a little hesitant to be, like, "Hey, Karen, while I totally realize all the ways the patriarchy has held us down and while I completely appreciate the female form on an objective level, when I fantasize in class it's about guys, specifically Jake Strommer, and how I'd like to lick his body up and down."
Mrs. Stark tells us to pair up with someone and compare our DNA diagrams. Jake turns around and smiles at me, the little gap between his front teeth making my stomach dip. "Let me see your genes, girl," he says in a deep, jokey voice.
I stand up and do Vanna White hands around my Levi's. Jake laughs, and I want to yell at no one, "SEE HOW WE GET EACH OTHER?!?!"
"Now let me see your other genes." He flips a page of his notebook to his diagram.
I sit down and look at my blank page. "I didn't do it," I whisper.
"Tsk tsk, Avery." He puts his notebook on my desk. "We can look at mine." His drawing looks like two magnified strands of hair with twisted ladder rungs between them. The perspective and the shading make me think he draws outside of class.
"This is really good. But you missed a thymine." I point to the spot on his drawing where it should be.
Jake scoffs good-naturedly. "You didn't even do it, and you're correcting mine?" He draws in the thymine and asks, still looking down at his paper, "So are you going to Billy's party tonight?"
"I don't know," I say, trying to make it seem like I'm debating between Billy's party and other plans, even though I haven't heard of any party and I don't know who Billy is.
"I haven't seen you at any of the parties since school started. What are you always doing?"
I lean in and lower my voice. "You can't tell anyone, but I'm actually in the CIA. I'm undercover as a high school student for a top-secret case."
"So what happens when you fall for the smooth sophomore?" He pulls his front teeth across his bottom lip and looks right at me.
My cheeks heat up like the coils of an electric stove and I look away, scanning the class. "Oh, you mean Franklin?" I say, tipping my head toward the other side of the room. Franklin sits at his desk, a spit-filled pen cap dripping from the side of his mouth, his pleated khakis bunching around his midsection.
"Dang, it's like that, huh?" Jake laughs and shakes his head. "Well, I heard Franklin is coming to Billy's tonight, so . . ."
"So I'm there."
At home, I drop my backpack next to the couch with a thud. Karen and Cory stand at the kitchen counter chopping vegetables.
"If there's a hunting club, then I don't see why there can't be a GSA," says Cory, perfectly symmetrical slices of red pepper falling off his knife in rapid succession.
"I'll come talk to Chuck next week," says Karen. Chuck being our principal. "He'll listen to me."
"Seriously, Karen?" I say, stealing a slice of red pepper from Cory's cutting board.
"What?" She places the flat side of her knife over a bulb of garlic and whacks it with the heel of her hand, then winces and rubs her arthritic knuckles. Her hair, cut in a classic mom pixie, is just starting to gray at the temples, and the other night when I walked by the bathroom I noticed her patting baby oil under her eyes.
"Can't you leave some things alone?" I say. The school year just started a few weeks ago, which means no one knows who my mother is yet, and I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible. Thankfully I have Steph's last name, and I told anyone who asked that we moved here to take care of my ill grandmother, who lives one town over in Dry Creek. "You do know no one's going to join a GSA, right?" I say to Cory.
He narrows his eyes at me. "You would, wouldn't you?"
"Well, yeah," I lie. "But you and me would be the only members." I grab a handful of pepper slices and chew them with my mouth open.
"Did you have a bad day at school, Avery?" asks Karen, reaching over to pet my hair.
"I had a fine day." I duck away from her hand. "I'm going to a party tonight."
Karen and Cory make eye contact. "Billy Cunningham's?" Cory says.
"How do you know about it?"
"Because Billy told me during history class that if I go, I'll be . . . How did he put it? Beat till I'm a dead horse." He laughs exaggeratedly. "Such a nice guy, that Billy. He's gone out of his way to introduce me to Kansas customs like drawing dicks on my locker and reminding everyone my name is Faggot."
Karen puts down her knife. "Honey, are you serious?"
"Now I'm definitely coming to talk to Chuck," says Karen. "And I don't want you going to a party at some homophobe's house," she says to me.
"Fine, I won't go," I say, and quickly change the subject. "Are we having stir-fry again?"
"There's nowhere decent in this town to get Chinese," says Karen, removing a paper-towel-wrapped block of tofu from underneath a dictionary. "So yes, we're having stir-fry again. Did you know I had to order fish sauce online? None of the grocery stores in a sixty-mile radius had it."
Cory winces. "I'm so desperate I would even eat P. F. Chang's. Compared to Pu Pu Hot Pot it's, like, gourmet."
"You guys are the ones who wanted to come here," I remind them.
Karen looks at me from the corner of her eye while she slices the tofu block in half horizontally, then cuts vertical strips from the top. "So who were you planning to see at that party tonight?"
"Jana," I say, who is my one friend so far in Big Burr, "and some other people from school." I shrug. "No one in particular."
"No one in particular, huh?" Karen makes a self-satisfied face like when she solves the Sunday crossword. "Does Avery like someone?" she asks Cory in a teasing, singsongy voice.
What is it with mothers? Sometimes they don't know anything, and other times they know the one thing you wish they didn't. She's always so careful to use the right words: someone, anyone, she or he or they. But her bias shows anyway, like a bra strap underneath a spaghetti-strap tank top. I can see it in how she holds her face when she asks questions like these, expression deliberately neutral. I can hear it in her tone, overly disinterested and nonchalant. Most of all, I can feel it in the pressure underneath her words, her hope for an answer that will mean I'm just like her.
It's not like she's ever outright said, "I wish you were gay." But on any given day Karen's sound bites would include the word "hetero" said like a slur, "Divorce your husband!" (yelled at the TV during House Hunters; said under her breath to women at Target), and, "Every day something makes me sad for straight women." The takeaway being: heterosexuality is inferior, and all straight people must be miserable idiots.
After dinner, Karen and Cory nestle on the couch and cue up Queer as Folk, which they must be re-watching for at least the tenth time. I hover near the window, waiting for Jana to pick me up. I told Karen we were going to a movie even though we have no plans of abandoning the party. When I see Jana's white Toyota Corolla with the dented door pull into the driveway, I sprint outside before Karen has a chance to invite her in.
As soon as I open the car door, I'm smacked in the face by the sickly sweet smell of Jana's vanilla-scented perfume, magnified by the Yankee Candle vanilla air freshener hanging from her rearview mirror. "Jesus, Jana, it smells like you fucked the Cookie Monster in here," I say, rolling down the passenger-side window.
Jana pauses to roll her eyes, then continues applying mascara using the tiny mirror on the back of the sun visor. She's wearing her standard black V-neck and black jeans, her long black hair parted down the center. She's not a goth or anything; she says she just likes her clothes to match her soul. I don't think my floral-print sweatshirt matches my soul, but I have no idea what would. Probably that gross purply brown color you get when you mix all the colors in the paint palette together.
"Hey, can I put some on?" I ask, gesturing to the mascara. I rarely wear makeup but we are going to a party. Maybe it will entice Jake to make a move.
Jana hands me the mascara and the second I bring the wand near my lashes, I poke myself in the eyeball.
"Oh my god, have you never done this before?" Jana licks her thumb and wipes the mascara from my eyelid, then takes the wand back. "Blink," she directs me as she makes small upward strokes. My lashes catch in the brush, sticking together and getting heavy.
When she's finished, I flip down my sun visor and behold myself. "Wow. I never knew my eyelashes were so long." I wonder how I would look with a full face of makeup: my acne foundationed into oblivion, my barely visible cheekbones contoured into sharp lines, my normal-sized lips plumped to Angelina Jolie proportions.
Jana laughs at me batting my eyelashes at myself, then backs the car out of the driveway. "So where are we going?"
"I thought you knew where Billy lives."
"Nope," she says. "Why don't you just text Jake and ask him for the address?"
"And reveal what a loser I am? No thank you."
Jana presses her lips together, thinking. "It's cool. We can just wait at 7-Eleven until someone from school shows up to buy Slurpees. Then we follow them." The rumor is that to be allowed into one of Billy's parties, you have to be holding a Slurpee, like some kind of offering. Apparently he dumps all the Slurpees into a huge bucket and then adds a few handles of vodka. The resulting slop is called pussy punch, supposedly because it gets girls so wasted that they'll have sex with anyone. Sometimes I can understand why my mom hopes I'm a lesbian.
After we've waited twenty long minutes in the 7-Eleven parking lot, a black hatchback pulls in and two people from school get out: Zach Roland and his best friend Ramona. Jana tells me they're kind of loners, not really friends with anyone except each other, and she wouldn't expect them to be invited to a party of Billy's, but when we follow them into the store they buy two Slurpees, so we do the same. Armed with a Mountain Dew Kickstart and a Fanta kiwi-strawberry, we follow them back out to the edge of town, past the gravel pit where yards become car graveyards and it's harder to tell which houses are lived in or abandoned. Finally we turn into a long, potholed, tree-lined driveway, thick branches scraping against the side of the car as we creep toward the house.
Reading Group Guide
1. Under the Rainbow is about what happens when a group of outsiders moves into a close-knit town. In what ways does the town of Big Burr function as a character in the novel? Did your feelings about Big Burr change over the course of the book? Why or why not?
2. The novel orchestrates a chorus of voices that are braided together to tell a complex and moving story. Which characters did you identify with? What was the effect of showing us the world of Big Burr through many different perspectives?
3. Christine is one of the most divisive characters in Under the Rainbow. Did you have any empathy for her situation? Why or why not? What do you think drives her to burn the billboard?
4. At the beginning of the novel, Avery defines “hetero shame” as “Fear of coming out as heterosexual to your lesbian mom, who you know wishes you were a lesbian, too.” How does Laskey interrogate shame? Which other characters feel shame and how does their shame manifest? What is the author saying about the larger social forces at play, in the town as well as in our own lives?
5. After one of Tegan’s listening sessions, a woman whom Tegan calls “braid lady” chastises her by saying, “You hold a listening session but you don't actually listen. You don't care how we feel—it's all for show. You act like you’re so much better than us but you hate us, too, and for the same reasons you think we hate you.” What do you think of her comments? In what ways do they reflect more widely on the town and the task force as a whole? Do Tegan’s attitudes change as a result of this criticism?
6. The novel centers on and prioritizes many different kinds of friendships: Lizzie and Tegan, Avery and Zach, Elsie and Harley, Linda and Jamal. Are all of these friendships mutual? Are they hopeful relationships? What is the author saying about the capacity for human connection across vast differences?
7. A theme of Under the Rainbow is secrets, why we keep them and what pushes them—willingly or not—into the light. What is the cost of keeping secrets on the characters? Are any secrets worth keeping? What results from telling the truth?
8. Gabe is the only character in Under the Rainbow who gets two chapters told through his perspective. Why do you think Laskey chose to end the novel with him? How did you feel about the way his story resolves?
9. Laskey often counterbalances the darker and more tragic elements of Under the Rainbow with warmth and humor. What effect does this have on the novel as a whole? Does humor allow us to absorb the more difficult truths?