Whether or not you’re well acquainted with Ivan E. Coyote’s work when you pick up One in Every Crowd, you’re bound to love this most recent collection of hers, the first geared specifically towards queer youth. As a long-time fan, I loved rereading old stories from some of Coyote’s earlier books, especially the ones that take place in the Yukon during her childhood. It was also awesome to hear about some of her new experiences doing outreach / activism in the form of storytelling in high schools and to read some stories that speak directly to queer teens. I actually feel slightly guilty for taking this book out of the public library and potentially depriving a queer teen of it for a week. I’m returning it tomorrow, I promise!
Coyote has smartly divided the book into thematic sections, the first being “Kid I Was.” This section contains one of my all-time favourite Ivan Coyote stories, “No Bikini.” It has what is quite possibly one of the best first lines of fiction ever: “I had a sex change once, when I was six years old.” As you can probably guess, the story follows a young Ivan’s 6-week stint as a boy at swimming lessons. It also finishes with a bang: Coyote tells us that her mother “was right. [She] couldn’t be trusted with a two-piece. Not then, and not now.” Another one of my favourites, “It Doesn’t Hurt,” is also reprinted in the first part of the book. Coyote does such an amazing job of capturing the imagination and spunk of rural kids looking for something to do. Whether she’s talking about rolling down steep hills inside old truck tires or inventing a game akin to hockey using a ping pong ball and a rat-tail comb, Coyote shows how much she remembers being a kid. The stories are a great tribute to the Yukon and to childhood.
In the second section, “Family I have,” there are a few of Coyote’s most touching and tear-jerking stories: namely, “Maiden Heart,” about her father’s being reunited with his high school sweetheart after nearly half a decade, “All About Herman,” a love story belonging to her grandmother, and “Just a Love Story,” which chronicles Coyote’s own romance, of meeting and eventually proposing to her (now) wife. Clearly, I’m revealing my preference for heart-warming love stories, but trust me: there’s something about the simple, straight-forward way she tells these stories that is bound to make you teary and warm and fuzzy.
The book gets more explicitly political as it moves into the third section, which brings together Coyote’s stories about her gender non-conforming godson, Francis; it’s hard not to cry when you read about Francis telling Ivan in a “conspiratorial voice” that he likes to wear dresses. It’s heartbreaking to hear Coyote wonder how soon is too soon to warn a kid like him about gay-bashers. When Coyote moves to talk about other young people, LGBTQ and otherwise, in “Kids I Met,” the political imperative of the book is definitely front and centre. I’ve heard Coyote say in performances that she uses a kind of strategy with audiences she’s unsure about, telling a few so-called ‘safe’ stories before moving onto telling the queer ones. Starting with more overtly personal stories and moving onto the more explicitly political ones is a similar strategy on Coyote’s part, and one that I think is quite successful. (Side note: obviously, the personal stories are political and vice versa—but superficially the stories appear different, I think). Anyone not won over already when starting the book is pretty quickly seduced by the charm of stories about childhood, warmed by love stories of all kinds, and is then, I think, ready for some of the harder hitting material that deals with bullying and teen suicide.
Although Coyote expresses her awe and discomfort at being looked at as a role model (not realizing at first that a young woman asking her about interviewing queer elders means her!), there isn’t really anything that she’s doing in this book that’s more powerful than being just that. “Imagine a Pair of Boots” is another of my favourite stories and exemplifies the kind of awesome role model she is. It takes up the issue of her gender identity in a simple but imaginative way, ending with this anecdote:
A couple of months ago … this young guy marched up and interrupted the person I was talking with to ask me if I was a man or a woman. I told him I was a primarily estrogen-based organism, and then I asked him the exact same question. He took two steps back and dropped his jaw. ‘I’m a man.’ He seemed visibly shaken by the thought of any other option. ‘And were you born male?’ I continued, winking at my companion. ‘Well, yeah, of course I was.’ ‘How interesting.’ I lit another smoke. ‘Hard to tell these days.’ my friend chimed in… I thought about it all later, how the guy’s ego had crumpled right in front of us, just because a stranger had questioned his masculinity. How scared he was of not being a real man, how easy it was to take him down. It dawned on me that if you’ve never had a blister, then you’ll never have a callus either. And if your soles are too soft, then you are screwed if you ever lose your boots.
Like everything Ivan Coyote writes, One in Every Crowd features easy-going, unpretentious storytelling whose power quietly sneaks up on you. I can’t imagine a more compassionate, powerful book for queer young people. I can’t imagine a better role model for younger LGBTQ folks. I can’t imagine anyone else being able to put together so many words of disarming yet comforting queerness. Please, read this book and pass it on.
[*note: as of 2014, Ivan Coyote is using they as a pronoun, and identifying as trans]