“The Prettiest Star” Explores Family Dynamics and AIDS in Appalachia

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels is the Appalachian AIDS story none of us realized we needed, but we absolutely needed. Sickels’ novel fills a gap left by the idealized communal care narratives that have long been the dominant story of the AIDS crisis. The most common stories about AIDS leave out the men who went back to small towns to spend their last days with families who did not understand them, did not want them, or believed they deserved to suffer because of their “sins.”

It’s 1986, and Brian Jackson is a gay man returning to his hometown of Chester, Ohio, after contracting AIDS while living in New York City. Because such a prominent character appears to be dying from the moment we meet him, there is a built-in tension, which Sickels develops throughout the novel.

The narration shifts between Brian; his mother, Sharon; and his younger sister, Jess. Jess and Sharon narrate in first person with no specific audience, but Brian’s chapters have a VHS icon reminding us that his chapters are video diaries. Sharon struggles with how her son is being treated and sometimes questions her role in that treatment, though not enough to take much action, while Jess prepares for her first year of high school by dieting, running, and trying to avoid being associated with her brother. Despite its somewhat episodic nature, the novel has a clear plot, believable characters with distinctive character arcs, and concretely described setting. Sickels uses storytelling strategies that readers of contemporary fiction will recognize. There are no convoluted timelines or narrative tricks – Sickels can just tell a story.

Upon returning home, Brian experiences the casual cruelties of his own family as well as community members. Brian’s father, especially, wants to keep Brian’s sexuality and illness a secret, and he insists that Brian must use a separate set of dishes. Sharon washes Brian’s clothes and bedding separately from the rest of the family’s things, and she wears gloves while she cleans his room. Eventually, she tells her husband, “I knew it was wrong, but I went along with it.” Then she strips off the gloves to hold Brian’s things in her bare hands, remembering “the softness of his tiny head when he was born,” but she also notes “the smell of sickness that cannot be washed away.”

For most of the novel, Brian’s only true ally in Chester is his grandmother, Lettie. Word of Brian’s illness starts to spread slowly, but after he gets into the public pool on a hot summer day, the situation escalates quickly and the people of the town begin making harassing phone calls and vandalizing the family home. Lettie is the only family member who stands by Brian; she boycotts local businesses, stops talking to friends, and calls in to a news show called On Location with Naomi to suggest that they cover Brian’s story, which they later do.

The setting makes all the difference in The Prettiest Star. As an Appalachian native, I found the descriptions oddly comforting, but they are also unsettling because we know that Brian is not safe or welcome. When Chester, Ohio, appears in On Location with Naomi, Sharon reports what she sees: “a rundown trailer park, the boarded up IGA, a red barn, a field of clover and weeds, the Buckeye Creek curving around the hills. Then, downtown: our old church, the dentist office, the closed Ben Franklin where I used to buy school supplies for Brian and Jess. A small town, a broken town. It looks trashy and poor, and I feel embarrassed, seeing it on TV. This is where we come from, this is who we are.”

The novel’s structure allows Brian to craft his own narrative, but Sharon and Jess seem far more exposed. Spending so much time inside their heads allows Sickels to make characters who might otherwise be villains very human, but he doesn’t excuse their behavior or their ignorance. The greatest triumph of this novel is that it takes what could easily be a story of homophobia, persecution, and hatred and turns it into a story of the ways in which humans struggle to make sense of the things that do not fit their own preconceived ideas of the world. By the end of the novel, Sharon and Jess have made some amends, but they have not become perfectly enlightened allies. Even though the novel is set in the past, these incomplete transformations leave room for readers to reflect on the work we still have to do as allies.

The Prettiest Star
By Carter Sickels
Hub City Press
Published May 19, 2020