Calico Lane evokes memories for LGBTQ+ people from a certain era
Calico Lane, by Olympia author Judy Kiehart, won the Best Indie Book Award in 2022.
Posted Friday, March 10, 2023 6:54 pm
By Dawn D. Deason
Calico Lane, a memoir by Olympia author Judy Kiehart, takes you to a mid-century northern Pennsylvania township full of self-sustaining, depression-era immigrants sharing the Russian Orthodox faith. Here families built their own homes and filled them with children. Kiehard takes us inside this insulated extended family lifestyle giving us a tender and generous view of the people and culture that trapped her.
Calico Lane will feel a lot like memory lane for many baby-boomer gays and lesbians. It’s a story of rich family ties that provide loving inclusion for everyone who conforms to an unspoken set of rules. Those same ties keep children who dare to challenge the rules bound with the ropes of shame. Judy walks a tightrope struggling to balance the expectations of her culture, religion and family with her innermost and confusing desires. Her successes and failures at this balancing act give us more than a coming out story, and it’s a descriptive and detailed account of growing up and becoming a whole person.
While it seems like it would be impossible in a pre-social media world, Kiehart manages to find and befriend young women like her who are attracted to other women. One woman in particular, Karen, plays the role of big sister mentor. Women who grew up gay in the ‘60s and ‘70s would have been fortunate to have support and guidance from a plain-spoken, generous-hearted woman like her. Other characters in Kiehart’s life play critical roles in developing who she becomes, but Karen is part architect and part keystone in Kiehart’s life.
Kiehart writes beautiful prose and paints a clear picture of the times and the spaces she occupies. She employs all the senses as she brings the reader into the story. Calico Lane reads more like fiction than a memoir. She even uses foreshadowing to tease readers into wanting to know more. However, this memoir could easily be edited into several shorter stories. Each segment is lovely by itself, but they often feel disconnected from each other.
The characters in Kiehart’s early life are carefully drawn. The reader sees her family members in early life and follows them as they age. It’s easy to feel like you know them and see their facial expressions in conversations. It is the characters in Kiehart’s later life that need filling in. She mentions how vital one particular woman is to her, but she fails to paint as rich and colorful a picture of her.
Calico Lane is an enjoyable book full of love, humor, and triumph. Readers who are not Russian Orthodox will get a sneak peek into a different and vibrant religious culture. There will be familiar themes for readers of the LGBTQ+ community, but no two coming-out stories are the same, and this one is a doozie.
Editor's Note: Judy Kiehart will appear at Orca Books on Sun., May 7, at 5 p.m. to discuss her book.
Dawn Deason is an Emmy award-winning retired journalist who splits her time between Olympia and Sacramento.