Claudia Cravens’ debut novel is a funny, sharp, subversive marvel: a queer Western that feels both fresh and timeless. With gunfights, gambling, mysterious strangers riding into town, criminal gangs and highway robbery, it has all the trappings of a classic Western. The plot takes off about two-thirds of the way through, and it delivers plenty of heart-pumping action and adventure. There’s more than one scene during which you might find yourself holding your breath. But what makes all of this action so compelling is the quiet buildup.
Alone and broke after her father dies from a snakebite, 16-year-old Bridget arrives in Dodge City, Kansas, exhausted, hungry and desperate for work. She finds it at the Buffalo Queen Saloon, a brothel run by two fierce but protective women. The Queen provides a kind of safety that Bridget has never known—steady money and a roof over her head—but it also makes her vulnerable to more than one kind of danger. When she falls in love with Spartan Lee, a legendary female gunfighter, Bridget realizes just how big the world truly is—and how much it will change her, if she lets it.
Though grounded in rich historical detail, Lucky Red reads at times like a modern coming-of-age story. Bridget’s new life as a “sporting woman” provides her with a fast education—in friendship and first love, in loss and betrayal, in what it means to stand up for herself and those she cares about. Cravens relates all of these internal revelations and outward discoveries in Bridget’s brash, no-nonsense, take-things-as-they-come narrative voice.
Through Bridget, Cravens captures the daily rhythms of a Kansas brothel in the 1870s with incredible care and nuance. There’s nothing sensational or dramatic about it. There’s only the honest depiction of the textures of ordinary life: the endless string of tricks that blur into each other; the petty squabbles between the women; the acts of loyalty and friendship that keep them alive; the bawdy jokes and moments of private amusement; the drudgery of chores; the ache of a hangover after a night of drinking and the pleasure of a hot cup of coffee.
Lucky Red is a complicated and moving portrait of a young queer woman determined to take up space in a world trying to render her invisible. Bridget often finds herself in situations without any good choices, and she sometimes pursues a course of action that causes harm, or makes messes—and isn’t that what it means to grow up? At its heart, this novel is a thrilling but contemplative meditation on the courage it takes to choose—yourself, your freedom, your pleasure, your home—and own the consequences.