I would not have read Earth As It Is had I not been friends with Jan Maher since our days on an AOL message board together. I probably never would have heard of it. But I did hear of it and I did read it, and I’m here to say you should read it, too.
Earth As It Is presented me with one of the most complicated character studies I’ve ever encountered. Charlene Bader comes to Heaven, Indiana in 1945 and sets up a hair salon to which all the women in town quickly gravitate, and for many years they continue to come there—some weekly, some monthly, some only a couple of times a year. Charlene, initially an outsider in an insulated small town, becomes a part of Heaven’s tapestry. Like a mother confessor, she listens to these women’s secrets but shares them with no one, unless, of course, everyone already knows them. But Charlene herself has a secret, and we as readers learn it in the first chapter while the townspeople remain ignorant. Charlene is a man.
I won’t detail the hows and whys of Charlie Bader’s evolution into Charlene Bader. I leave it to the book to skillfully and gently take the reader there. I will say, however, that as reader who is also a writer, I found myself wanting to know how Ms. Maher had navigated her way through the dark spaces of a character who came of age in the 1920s, had married, then slowly evolved into the woman we come to know in Heaven. In those days (as if these days are all that different), one didn’t share such a horrible revelation with anyone for fear of being run out of town or worse. It was a secret tightly wound into the psyche.
This is a brilliant tale which could have easily slipped into the grotesque, but Maher handles every character, every situation, every nuanced detail with the simplicity and grace which a setting like Heaven, Indiana deserves. I came to love and admire Charlene Bader. A short way into the book, I looked to the end to see how many pages there were to read and came across the “Book Club Guide.” I read the first question. “What does the title Earth As It Is mean to you?” I pondered this question as I read, and when I finished, I realized that although my initial take on the title—that everything that happens in the story is earth as it is, life as it is—may have been in part on point, I had missed it. But never fear. Ms. Maher supplies the answer in the end.