“The Prettiest Star” by Carter Sickels, and other queer stories

Review by Rebecca Brown Asmo

In The Prettiest Star, Carter Sickels tells the story of Brian, a gay man living in 1980s New York City who, dying from AIDS and no longer able to care for himself, is forced to return to his small hometown in Ohio. Told from the perspectives of Brian himself, his younger sister Jess, and his mother Sharon, the book immerses the reader in the fear, loneliness, shame, and guilt that permeated most Americans’ experiences of the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.

Sickels also viscerally describes of the physical deterioration that AIDS wrecked on the body before antiviral treatments were available. As a transgender man, elements of this story are undoubtedly autobiographical and mirror his own coming of age during this era. This deeply moving story reminds all of us of our own struggles growing up while also giving us opportunities to reflect on America’s treatment of its citizens who were impacted by HIV and AIDS.

I read this book after it won an Ohioana Library Award for Fiction in 2021, and I was engrossed in it from start to finish. All three narratives are beautifully written, but I most connected with Jess, Brian’s teenage sister who is struggling with the changes brought by adolescence while trying to make sense of what is happening around her. Jess loves Brian, but her parents keep her in the dark about his health. She faces harassment from friends and neighbors, sadness and about her brother’s impending death, and loneliness as she navigates the growing isolation she feels from her parents. She swims through her family’s devastation nearly invisible and constantly searching for human connection–for someone to see her for who she is and not just what her family is going through.

Although I came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, I experienced the AIDS epidemic mostly through my television set. Nevertheless, Jess’ feelings were ones with which I instantly connected. They are universal in a coming of age story.
Every reader of The Prettiest Star will find a character with whom they deeply connect with. Sickels grew up in a small town in Appalachian Ohio. Carter Sickels is an established literary success, and The Prettiest Star is yet another moving piece in his oeuvre.

Ohio plays a critically important role in the ongoing LGBTQ rights movement: Cleveland was home to the nation’s first gay and lesbian talk radio show in the 1990s and, in 2015, Sandusky native Jim Obergefell served as the plaintiff in the historic Supreme Court decision that ensured all Americans the ability to marry whomever they love. Today, Slammers on Long Street in Columbus is the only lesbian bar remaining in the state, and one of just 15 left nationwide. And Dayton native Amy Schneider recently became the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for Jeopardy’s ‘Tournament of Champions.’

More than 450,000 of our friends and neighbors identify as members of the LGBTQ community. In honor of Pride Month,

Here’s a list of some of our other favorite books written by queer Ohioans or about the queer experience in the Midwest and across the country:

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Allison Bechdel

Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell

Transmutation by Alex DiFrancesco

Girls Can Kiss Now by Jill Gutowitz

Rust Belt Femme by Raechel Anne Jolie

How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir by Saeed Jones

The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman

Y’all Means All: Emerging Voices Queering Appalachia by Z. Zane McNeill

Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America by Ryan Schuessler and Kevin Whiteneir, Jr.

Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper

Happy Pride Month!