Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City brings an original angle to the trope of exploring the family you’re born into and the family that you choose. More than a coming-out novel (though it’s that, too), this debut is an insightful and entertaining love letter to the LGBTQ community in Portland, Oregon.
Estranged from her family in Nebraska, Andy (Andrea) Morales has created a home and community for herself in Portland’s small but thriving lesbian community in the early 1990s (think fanzines, mixtapes, dive bars and riot grrrls). But after a bad breakup, she hooks up with Ryan Coates, the drummer in a band on the verge of making it big. What should have been a one-night stand turns into a relationship—after all, it feels so good to be wanted. Andy keeps the relationship secret for as long as she can, but when she discovers that she’s pregnant, she decides to keep the baby, much to the astonishment of her friends. But as grateful as she is for Ryan’s attention, she can’t hide her ambivalence about him as a life partner.
A decade later, Andy is happily settled with her lover, Beatriz, but her precocious daughter, Lucia, has begun asking questions about her biological father. Andy must decide how to resolve past decisions with the life she’s worked so hard to attain.
According to Johnson, Stray City began as a short story about Ryan, in which he’s stranded in a van in rural Minnesota with a guilty secret. The more Johnson worked on it, the more she was curious about the pregnant girlfriend he’d left behind in Portland. Johnson’s love of Portland and its “strays and refugees” is what gives Stray City its singular charm. Though the story dips into the grim reality of homophobic hate crimes (Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard were both murdered in the ’90s), Stray City never loses its quirky point of view or Andy’s fresh perspective.