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Real Queer America
LGBT Stories from Red States
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In Real Queer America, Allen takes us on a cross-country road-trip stretching all the way from Provo, Utah to the Rio Grande Valley to the Bible Belt to the Deep South. Her motto for the trip: “Something gay every day.” Making pit stops at drag shows, political rallies, and hubs of queer life across the heartland, she introduces us to scores of extraordinary LGBT people working for change, from the first openly transgender mayor in Texas history to the manager of the only queer night club in Bloomington, Indiana, and many more.
Capturing profound cultural shifts underway in unexpected places and revealing a national network of chosen family fighting for a better world, Real Queer America is a treasure trove of uplifting stories and a much-needed source of hope and inspiration in these divided times.
Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
—Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper
Queer in Trump’s America
I was reborn in a car.*
It was a silver 2005 Honda Accord SE with seat warmers, a six-CD stereo, and delightfully slippery black leather seats. When driven by a jobless college student like me in the year 2007, it practically screamed, “This belongs to my dad!”—and it did. But that year, it was mine.
By appearances, I was one of thousands of young men studying at Brigham Young University, school of choice for the Mormon faithful. But most nights found me cruising around the eerily neat grid of Provo, Utah, in that hand-me-down sedan, searching the city’s plentiful parking lots for isolated corners where I could apply makeup and change into women’s clothing unseen.
My nocturnal transformations weren’t pretty. I smeared my eyeliner. I confused tube tops for skirts and vice versa. But the awkward, liminal creature I saw in the visor mirror was me—or at least a shadow of me, a precursor of the woman I would one day become.
That possibility was still unimaginable to me in 2007. Coming out as a transgender woman didn’t feel like a real option then; my enrollment at BYU and my full-ride scholarship both depended on my obedience to the school’s strict anti-LGBT honor code, which forbade “cross-dressing” and “homosexual conduct.” Mom and Dad, I safely presumed, would not be thrilled if the “son” they financially supported dropped out of college to become their daughter. But the veneer of male heterosexuality that I was putting on for BYU—and for my Mormon girlfriend at the time—was growing less convincing every day.
I tried to tell myself that I was happy being just a “cross-dresser”—that transition was not my eventual goal—but even I didn’t believe me.
I was honest with myself only in that car. Shielded from the conservative college town by just a few inches of glass and steel, I felt like I could reach out and brush my fingers against the barest outline of a female future. Two thousand miles of Route 80 lay between my devout Mormon parents and myself. My clean-cut roommates either had no idea where I went after midnight with an overstuffed backpack slung over my shoulder, or they didn’t care.
So I changed. And I drove.
I drove north past the Mormon Temple that looks like a gleaming white birthday cake with a single candle, past the mall on U.S. Route 189 where I saw my first R-rated movie in a theater, and then up the canyon highway where there were no more stoplights to slow me down. I hurtled up that canyon road until the lights of the valley were below me and the stars stood out against the jagged swath of night sky between silhouetted peaks on either side. When morning came I would be back in khakis, bowing my head in prayer at the start of my first class. The dreary Mormon ruse would begin anew. But as long as my foot stayed on that pedal, I felt alive. That’s how I started the messy process of becoming Samantha—and that’s how I fell in love with the road.
The reassuring hum of an engine, the thrill of a blurry world whooshing past your windshield—these are seductive enough forces in their own right. When they provide the only momentum in a life that feels stalled, they become irresistible.
I’m still driving today—now with a passenger. Years of hormones and surgeries later, the outline of that once-impossible future has been filled in, the “M” on my birth certificate erased and replaced with a reaffirming “F.” I officially resigned from the Mormon Church in 2008, dealt with the resulting familial drama, and came out as a transgender woman four years later. Most important, I got married to another woman in 2016—a woman named Corey who not only accepted me but who guided me through the early stages of gender transition. With her help, I can finally—kind of—do my eyeliner.
Much of my painful past is now in the rearview mirror, and my car long ago stopped being the only place where I felt free, but I have never stopped roaming. That need to feel the asphalt under my wheels, to count the mile markers as they whiz by, to track down the best-lit gas station on a dark highway at 2 a.m.—that hasn’t gone away. Cars, for me, are still places of refuge, portals to distant possibilities.
I have crisscrossed the United States half a dozen times and counting. I came out as transgender in Atlanta, Georgia; fell in love in Bloomington, Indiana; and found my ride-or-die friends in East Tennessee. This is what I’ve learned on my travels: America is a deeply queer country—not just the liberal bastions and enclaves, but the so-called real America sandwiched between the coasts. I was once terrified to be transgender in Utah and queer in Georgia. Not anymore. I love this damn country too much to write off the majority of its surface area.
That’s why I wrote this book. Real Queer America is the product of a six-week-long cross-country road trip through LGBT communities in red states. It is, for me, a direct continuation of those late-night drives up Provo Canyon. Call it a spiritual successor. I will take you along with me on a trans-America trek: a journey stretching all the way from Provo, Utah, to the Rio Grande Valley, from the Midwest to the Deep South, meeting and interviewing extraordinary LGBT people along the way.
When I told friends and family I was writing this book, their immediate response was usually one of concern: “Be careful.” I get it. This might seem like a frightening time to be queer in the U.S.A., let alone for a transgender reporter to cross its most conservative regions by car. Many of the states on my itinerary had draconian anti-LGBT laws on the books at the time of my trip—and many still do. Some had even more pernicious bills waiting in the wings.
With President Donald Trump in the White House, too, the federal government was stacked with figures who posed an unprecedented threat to LGBT rights: our right to work, our right to marry, even our right to use the bathroom—and there’s no way to get from coast to coast without having to pee in half a dozen different states.
But in my experience, too many folks in liberal enclaves are under the misconception that the anti-LGBT bigots who backed Trump wield uncontested control over conservative parts of the country. Some still think that red states are irredeemable cesspools of hatred, to be avoided at all costs. “Flyover country” they call it, dangerously assured of their own relative safety and moral superiority. Never mind reports of anti-transgender violence in places such as Bushwick, Brooklyn,1 or Capitol Hill, Seattle2—both neighborhoods where no one would ever warn me to “be careful.”
Real Queer America is an attempt to document what’s actually happening in the “real America” that more and more LGBT people are calling home—to capture some of the progressive cultural shifts that people on the coasts don’t read enough about in a media environment that focuses mostly on a handful of horrific incidents and regressive laws.
It’s not that red states don’t have problems; they do. As an LGBT journalist, I spend much of my time reporting on anti-transgender “bathroom bills” and other red-state attacks on my rights. But places are so much more than their laws. And the only way for people on the coasts to understand how states such as Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee are evolving is to stop flying over them and start going to them. Nothing could be queerer than getting out of your comfort zone.
“The word ‘queer’ itself,” literary theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick famously wrote in her explanation of the term’s etymology, “means across.”
“Queer is a continuing moment, movement, motive,” she wrote, “recurrent, eddying, troublant.”3
Queerness crosses sexual boundaries, gendered expectations, and political borders. It is always in motion because to stop moving would be to surrender to the bigots who want to box us in—who want to check our birth certificates at bathroom doors or determine whom we sleep with before they bake us a cake. That is the beauty of queerness: it is irrepressible, like a spring rushing up to fill cracks in the earth. Queerness shows up uninvited. It doesn’t check your voting history or your religious affiliation before knocking on your door. It didn’t quiz Dick Cheney about his politics before delivering a lesbian daughter to his doorstep, and it certainly didn’t ask my Mormon parents whether they wanted a transgender child before all ten pounds and fifteen ounces of me made my Long Beach, California, debut.
We LGBT people are already everywhere. We are born at the same unstoppable pace in every state—North, South, red, blue—and to every household, religious or not. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 7 percent of millennials—and as a thirty-something, I fall in the upper end of that age bracket—now identify as LGBT.4 And not every LGBT person born into a conservative part of America wants to get out.
As Monica Roberts, a longtime transgender blogger and my activist hero in Houston, wryly told me when I shared my plans to write this book, “We live here, too, and we get tired of being told to move to California or whatever.”
Monica is still noticing lots of “[LGBT] people leaving rural areas in red states” like Texas, but she says they are going to “oasis cities like Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso” because “they don’t need to go all the way to San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York.”
The data back her up: if you think all the queer youngsters are still migrating to New York or the Bay Area, think again. A 2016 ConsumerAffairs.com analysis looked at U.S. census and Gallup polling data and found that costly, queer-friendly cities are starting to lose some of their luster among LGBT people, whereas cities such as Louisville, Norfolk, and Indianapolis are rising in stature. Blue-state LGBT hot spots like New York and Seattle still saw increases in the percent of the population that identifies as LGBT, but many red-state cities saw much larger increases.
A ConsumerAffairs.com representative told me that the trend “lines up with people—especially young people—choosing less to live in huge, expensive cities, which were traditionally friendlier toward LGBTQ individuals, and choosing instead to make lives for themselves in small and mid-tier cities in the middle and southern states.”5
The fact that many of these smaller and mid-tier cities have been passing nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people makes it easier to live there, even if there is no legal recourse to be found at the state level. According to the Movement Advancement Project, which ranks states on their LGBT policies on a scale from “negative” to “high,” 47 percent of the LGBT population now lives in states ranked “low” or below.6 That means almost half of queer people in this country are spread across the South and the Midwest, Texas and the Dakotas, and other red regions.
If the dominant LGBT narrative of the twentieth century was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way bus ticket to the Big Apple, the untold story of the twenty-first is the queer girl in Tennessee who stays put.
Real Queer America is a testament to the simple fact that LGBT people exist in red states—that our identity is not contingent on our geography. It is proof that the “real America” has been and will always be a queer country. It is a rough and admittedly incomplete sketch of the next chapter in our country’s LGBT history: a collection of stories about the people who are staying.
But it’s also something more: a celebration of queer life and activism under the challenging circumstances that come with more conservative surroundings. My new friend Adam Sims, a volunteer at a Provo LGBT center called Encircle, put it best when he told me, “Oppression and opposition can build the most beautiful connections.”
There is a vitality to queerness where you least expect it. A refusal to be complacent. A warmth in being bonded together by the omnipresent atmospheric pressure of bigoted policies and legislative threats. Because we are still climbing up from the bottom, we still need each other.
“Often in red states, we have the enemy in our face every day,” Monica Roberts told me. “We know who the enemy is, so we are still fighting and clawing and scratching just to get the stuff that people take for granted in New York, California, and the West Coast—and even when we do pass stuff, we have to fight tooth and nail just to keep it.”
And we fight together. Near the end of my five years living in Atlanta in my twenties, when I was working on my PhD at Emory University, the state of Georgia was one stroke of the pen away from legalizing anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of “religious freedom.”7 But we stopped that bill from happening and went right back to living in a city where you can go to a queer dance party at midnight and eat a sausage sandwich with Krispy Kreme doughnuts for buns two hours later at Delia’s.
Atlanta is still the best place in the country to be gay or bi or trans, and I’d gladly split a Publix sub with anyone who wants to debate me.
It is in states like Georgia that LGBT people intuitively understand critical theorist José Esteban Muñoz’s description of queerness as a “longing that propels us onward,” as a “rejection of the here and now and an insistence on potentiality.” We work hard because we have to, and we play hard because we want to—and through both work and play we build spaces where we can be ourselves and love each other. In Muñoz’s words, we are “always dream[ing] and enact[ing] new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world,” because the world we have before us is so obviously lacking.
Because we know queerness, as Muñoz beautifully wrote, is “not yet here.”8
That’s why I feel lucky to have lived all my queer adult life up to now in red states: we dream big and we don’t take progress for granted.
Since my 2007 rebirth, I have found homes and second homes in states that all went red in 2016: Utah, Montana, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, and, most recently, Florida.
My love story, too, takes place against a largely red-state backdrop. I met my wife, Corey, in Bloomington, Indiana, in the summer of 2013 and she moved to Atlanta to be with me the following year. When I think about my life with her, my mind is flooded with moments we’ve shared in the states that helped elect Trump, like kayaking the pristine Weeki Wachee River in Hernando County, Florida, which broke 63 to 34 for Trump, or slamming down an enormous plate of bacon cheese fries at an East Tennessee diner with my bisexual best friend—and paying only seven dollars for the privilege. I think about Corey and me cramming our butts into the same creaky Cracker Barrel rocking chair, or sipping coffee together while the Chattahoochee crawls past our favorite bench.
And to be honest, I try to block out most of our memories of New York, which I not so lovingly call Garbage Island in an homage to my favorite episode of Broad City.9 I try to forget about our weekend in San Francisco, where a plate of chicken fingers at a downtown diner once ran me an appalling twenty dollars. These might be vaunted LGBT hot spots, but they are also exhausting and brutal places to visit, let alone live. The queer communities there can be cliquey, too, because people are spoiled for choice; in red-state oases, I’ve felt so much more adhesiveness between the L and the G and the B and the T.
So not only am I not afraid to be queer in red states, red states are where I prefer to be queer.
Even with an attorney general like Jeff Sessions whispering in the president’s ear, I would much rather be queer in Alabama than queer in the Castro District. I’m happier in Florida, where I can drive down to No Name Key on a whim as lightning shreds a stormy summer sky, than I would be in Brooklyn, where I could, I guess, take a train out to Montauk? And at a moment when some progressives are weighing the option of abandoning red states or even fleeing the country altogether, I think it’s important for people with the privileges that I have—like financial security and whiteness—to do exactly the opposite: to dive deeper into the heart of this country and prove that it can’t possibly be unqueered.
Over the next few years, laws will come and laws will go. And over the coming decades, presidents with different opinions on LGBT people will move in and out of the White House. Things might get very bad indeed for queer folks before they start to get better.
But we will always be here and we will always be queer—whether people get used to it or not.
Queerness itself is forever. It is everywhere. And it is irrefutably American. If you want to learn that for yourself, all you have to do is get in the car and drive. Take this book with you.
* Portions of this introduction previously appeared in the Daily Beast in the article “I’m Proud to Be Queer in Trump’s America” (January 21, 2017).
1“AVP Learns of an Anti-Transgender Attack in Bushwick, Brooklyn,” https://avp.org/avp-learns-anti-transgender-attack-bushwick-brooklyn/
2“Anti-Trans Attack in Capitol Hill Restaurant Not Caught on Tape,” https://seattle.eater.com/2017/9/22/16352266/transphobic-violence-attack-rancho-bravo-capitol-hill
3Eve Kosofky, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), xii.
4“Millennials Are the Gayest Generation,” http://www.thedailybeast.com/millennials-are-the-gayest-generation
5“Why LGBT People Are Moving to Red States,” http://www.thedailybeast.com/why-lgbt-people-are-moving-to-red-states
6“Equality Maps,” http://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps
7“Nathan Deal Vetoes Georgia’s ‘Religious Liberty’ Bill,” http://politics.blog.ajc.com/2016/03/28/breaking-nathan-deal-will-veto-georgias-religious-liberty-bill/
8José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 1.
9The episode, called “Pu$$y Weed,” aired Jan. 29, 2014.
If you stick your head in the sand, problems don’t just go away.
after losing Bowers v. Hardwick, 19861
The first color in the LGBT Pride flag isn’t blue; it’s red.
Red like 2,600 U.S. counties were in the 2016 presidential election. Red like Donald Trump’s neckties. And red like my anxiety-flooded face the day after he won, when my wife, Corey, raised the possibility of leaving the country.
Just four months earlier, she and I were taking selfies with our freshly minted marriage certificate in the parking lot of the Coral Gables, Florida, city hall. We laughed about our officiant, Mario, who accidentally referred to Corey as my “husband” when he recited the heterosexual ceremony script out of habit. The next day, on our impromptu honeymoon, we drove down the Overseas Highway to Marathon and walked to the end of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, an eroding railroad turned walking trail stretching out over the warm waters of the Florida Strait, so we could watch the sun drop down behind Pigeon Key.
Corey’s statement-piece Adidas were bright red against the neglected pavement. When we reached the fence at the abrupt end of the path, it felt like our love was the pink in the sky.
We didn’t know then that, come November, Florida would turn the same color as Corey’s shoes, as would most swing states—or that the Keys, which Obama won by fewer than two hundred votes in 2012, would pivot decisively in Trump’s direction this time around.
Watching that sunset, we had no idea that we would soon be contemplating taking our four-month-old marriage out of the country—or at least out of a state that helped elect a president who wraps anti-LGBT policymakers around him like a security blanket. But that’s precisely the question we asked ourselves on November 9: To stay or not to stay?
I found my answer at the top of the Pride flag. There’s no way, of course, that the color of its first stripe was intended as a commentary on our geographically divided political climate. Red didn’t mean “Republican” or blue “Democrat” until the year 2000 anyway.2 Red is simply the first color in the rainbow, not a sign from the cosmos meant for me personally.
But back when Gilbert Baker designed that now-ubiquitous emblem of LGBT rights in 1978, he did want that red stripe to signify “life.”3 And shortly after the election, I realized that I owe my life to someone who decided to stay in red-state America nineteen years ago.
In 1999 a young man from Indiana named Michael Shutt moved to Washington, D.C., for an internship at a prestigious HIV/AIDS advocacy organization. At the time, our nation’s capital was one of the best places in the country to be gay—at least on paper: anti-gay discrimination in private employment had been banned since 1977, and same-sex couples had been able to register as domestic partners since 1992.4
Fresh out of a master’s program and swooning over his then-boyfriend (and now-husband), Brian, Michael pictured a future full of cherry blossoms and brick houses and queer activism.
There was just one problem: he hated it there.
“I very quickly learned that I would rather eat glass with a Tabasco chaser than live in Washington, D.C.,” he tells me over the phone shortly after the election.
Two things happened to disabuse Michael of the notion that the District of Columbia would be his forever home: First, he was robbed the same day his internship began. Second, he realized that many of his new coworkers at the HIV/AIDS advocacy organization were more interested in climbing ladders than they were in saving lives.
“I was very excited to work with them,” he recalls. “And within days I saw that no one cared about the work—they cared about who you knew and what their next job was going to be.”
The worst side of Washington was the same then as it is today: a bubble of money, privilege, and power in which jockeying for position too often takes precedence over the task at hand. Veteran newscaster David Brinkley once called D.C. “a city filled with people who believe they are important.” LGBT people are not immune to that belief, as Michael learned firsthand. When his internship ended three months later, he rushed down to Roswell, Georgia, with Brian in tow, taking up residence in his sister’s spare room with no job prospects in sight.
He was just happy to be out of D.C.
Instead of trying to make a name for himself in our nation’s capital, Michael ended up becoming a queer pioneer in the South. Five years and a few job descriptions after he left Washington, he founded Georgia’s first public-university LGBT student center at the University of Georgia in the Atlanta exurb of Athens.5 (Michael “didn’t know what a damn Bulldog was” when he first started working at UGA, he admits to me, but that changed fast.) And after his pathbreaking time at UGA, he took a job as director of the Office of LGBT Life at Emory University in Atlanta proper.
- "Real Queer America is a book necessary for anyone in -- or allied with -- the queer community, especially those of us who see the bad news day after day. [Allen is] sharing the beauty of the spaces that LGBTQ+ people have carved out for themselves, and she's giving credit where credit is very much overdue, because it's the queer folk who live and stay in red states -- whether by choice or due to a lack of options -- who have to survive there and work to make them better."—Los Angeles Times
- "Samantha Allen's America is filled with buoyant queer people in supposedly red states living their lives with resilience and joy. This moving journey starts out in Utah--but Allen's road ultimately takes the reader to the center of her heart. Surprising, inspiring, and thoughtful."—Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of SHE'S NOT THERE and LONG BLACK VEIL
- "A powerful book of memoir and reportage...It is difficult to capture universality in a way that also celebrates uniqueness. Allen does so through the diversity of the individual stories she uplifts, giving any reader an entry point into LGBTQ lives... [She writes] with a vulnerability and humility as approachable and accessible as it is profoundly moving."—New York Times Book Review
- "It's kind of like a trans Travels with Charley in Search of America, but without Steinbeck's lightly misogynist depictions of women and meandering, stream of consciousness. As Samantha Allen travels across the country's reddest states and perhaps the most unsafe for queer people, she unearths a humanity that the midwest and south are rarely afforded. Queer people exist everywhere, not just cities, and this book is a fierce testament to that."—Out Magazine
- "Allen argues that queerness thrives everywhere, perhaps even more so in states like Indiana, Texas, and Tennessee, precisely because there's still so much advocacy work to do. Allen's openness about her personal story--including growing up Mormon, living an angst-filled double life in Provo, coming out as transgendered, meeting her wife in an elevator at the Kinsey Institute, and undergoing surgery to get a vagina--invites respect. She writes with loving curiosity about other people in the LGBTQ community and blends this with national-level reporting on political and historical LGBTQ issues."—Booklist (Starred Review)
- "I love Samantha Allen! Her voice is an essential part of the movement and a new brand of queer hero for these dark times. In the face of the alt-right and crypto fascists, I say- Queeros Assemble!"—Lilly Wachowski, co-writer andco-director of The Matrix trilogy and co-creator ofthe GLAAD Award winning Netflix series Sense8
- "In this clever combination of easy travelogue and thoughtful exploration of queerness in America, journalist Allen retraces her transformation from a Mormon missionary in Utah to a transgender woman living happily in rural Florida...Queer readers will nod knowingly at the descriptions of finding gay-friendly hangouts and questioning whether public hand-holding is safe in a new area, and readers without that experience will still enjoy Allen's charming, humorous recounting of the ultimate road trip through rainbow-colored America."—Publishers Weekly
- "Real Queer Americais a delight to read...an engrossing journey full of humor, vulnerability, insight, and joy. What results is a beautiful tapestry of, well, the real queer America... Real Queer Americais well-written and well-researched, and it's a blast to read, but perhaps its most essential question is that of how complicit 'blue state' LGBTQ people are in dismissing red states as scary places for queers. The whole world is scary, for queers and for everyone. Perhaps Real Queer Americawill inspire the reader to be more involved in fighting discrimination everywhere."—Rewire
- "Samantha Allen doesn't just have her finger on the pulse of queer and trans America--the pulse runs through her fingers and onto the screen and page. I am always amazed at her capacity to get the story, convey the facts, and yet leave no doubt as to what really matters behind the buzzwords and slogans: real people with real lives you'll be grateful to have encountered."—Jay Michaelson, author of GOD VS. GAY?
- "In her generous, clear-eyed reporting, Samantha Allen invites us to see ourselves for who we really are: a country of queer possibility. Her work proves these American stories are too powerful to ever be kept in their place."—Melissa Gira Grant, author of PLAYING THE WHORE
- "Real Queer America ends on a note of hope, predicting that its portrait of queer lives will eventually become antiquated as America grows more and more inclusive of all genders and sexualities. But this will only happen if people of all kinds choose to create communities where we can thrive together. In giving us humanizing portraits of places that many queer people fear and will not visit, Allen has done much to close this divide, and now we, her readers, must take up this message and manifest it in our own lives."—LitHub
- "Allen is smart-as-hell, but inclusive and impassioned. Hers' might not be the book all the gay boys are talking about in an exclusive NYC salon, but it is the book the rest of us can read aloud at the kitchen table with our queer family and our blood family, with our chosen sisters and our yet-to-be-educated uncles...So many wonderful books get written for the NYC and San Francisco LGBTQ community. I'm glad Samantha Allen wrote Real Queer America for the rest of us."—Lambda Literary
- "[Allen] sheds a light on the struggles and triumphs of rural LGBTQ+ people, and smashes misconceptions about how they live. Part memoir, part journalism, and all heart, this is an important book about queer communities today."—BookRiot
- "Real Queer America might be the best travel book of the year...a must-read for all Americans."—Refinery29
- "Allen's award-winning work as an LGBT journalist for platforms like Fusion and The Daily Beast is both radically empathetic and comprehensively analytical. This is a balance she has upheld admirably in Real Queer America, an exploration of queer communities in conservative parts of the country-communities that are often overlooked in conversations about what it means to be queer, American, or both. Use this title to help you chart the course of your next cross-country road trip."—Harper's Bazaar
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company