It would be easy enough to draw a parallel between the subject matter of Carter Sickels’ new novel and the moment in which the novel is being released.
Sickels’ “The Prettiest Star” is a story about a pandemic — not the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the AIDS pandemic during the late 1980s. Published by Hub City Press in Spartanburg, the novel was originally slated to hit bookshelves in mid-April, but its release was pushed back to May 19 due to the coronavirus lockdowns.
“In some ways it feels difficult to talk about the book in our current context, this pandemic we’re all going through, just because we’re right in the midst of it,” Sickels said, speaking by phone from his home in Lexington, Kentucky, where he teaches at Eastern Kentucky University.
The novel tracks the story of a 24-year-old gay man named Brian who returns to his rural hometown in Ohio, having not seen his family in six years. After witnessing the death of his boyfriend and nearly all of his friends — and dying of AIDS himself — Brian has chosen to spend whatever time he has left back home with his family, even if some members of his family are too ashamed to even say the word “gay” out loud.
“I guess I don’t want to draw any easy parallels between that era and now, because with the AIDS pandemic and the time I was writing about — the late ’80s and early ’90s — gay people were so clearly targeted and stigmatized,” Sickels said.
Today, there are more than 1.1 MILLION Americans living with HIV and more than 700,000 Americans with AIDS have died since the beginning of the pandemic.
Source: Centers for Disease Control
Told from three perspectives — Brian himself, his 14-year-old sister Jess and his mother Sharon — the book is just as much about evolution and growth as it is about illness. Brian’s mother begins the novel worrying about her son coming home and the scrutiny that could bring. “What will people think?” she asks herself. Her journey toward trying to understand her son is the core of Sickels’ story.
Now that the book is being released in times of such uncertainty, he hopes readers take away what it means to care for people.
“There were about 40,000 people who died of AIDS before the president even mentioned the word in a public address,” Sickels said. “There was no public outcry. But at the same time, I think we can see how we can maybe learn from that period about how to take action and care for one another. How do we show our compassion and reach out to each other in times of chaos, fear and grief? That’s what I hope still resonates.”