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The Desert Peach: Out of the East. By Donna Barr. Bremerton, WA: A Fine Line Press, 2000. 64p. (The Desert Peach, no.29). $6.00. ISBN 1-892253-07-0.

Historical fiction; gay and lesbian fiction

Adults, teens; adult situations

It's the 1970s in Siberia. Two soldiers are amazed to see what seems to be a Chukchi, a Siberian native, riding a reindeer. They follow the rider, but he outdistances them and arrives at a herd tended by several real Chukchis. The rider is an all-but-toothless, one-eyed ancient named Sartopov whose Russian is not perfect--indeed, every so often he lets loose with a German oath or word. His job is to neuter most of the reinder bucks; his tools are his remaining teeth, "broken off sharp as a hare's knife." Before he can get started, he frantically looks for his "marke" (his missing dog tags), and in a flashback we see him in a younger day, working in a Russian lead mine with many other German slaves. But he shakes off the memory and goes to work on the bucks. Intending to sell the testicles and penises to the Chinese, who think "anyt'ing is for sex medicine, an' pay lots from Chukchi," Sartopov trots off, then belatedly remembers his dog tags. Which have been picked up by the two Russian soldiers, who are scrounging around the now-deserted area where the herd had been, looking for Chukchi figurines left behind to protect their path from the spirits. When Sartopov comes blundering over on his reindeer to ask for his tags back, the two soldiers--who have Western contacts in the smuggling business--realize they've found something rare and valuable: a surviving German soldier named Udo Schmidt.

Some time later, Lisa and Potzi, two women from Germany, come to pick up little Udo, who is baffled and confused by everything that has started to happen to him. Sneaking him through Customs by the judicious use of the number tattooed on Lisa's arm, they bring him to Germany and call up one Manfred Rommel-Oiseau, who has been looking for Udo for a long time but had given up any real hope of finding him. Mani immediately contacts his uncle Melvin, partner to Pfirsich Rommel; Udo was Pfirsich's orderly. Melvin isn't exactly thrilled by this development, because Pfirsich has been having a tough time getting over the war, even after all these years; and when Melvin reveals that Udo is on his way, Pfirsich endures the long and painful memory of how Udo ended up in Russia in the first place--via Operation Keelhaul and the vindictiveness of Leutnant Winzig....

Boy, it's so refreshing to read and review something like this, where the author cares about getting historical and cultural details right, after suffering through "superhero anthropology" in Batman: Shaman. But of course, we should expect nothing less from Donna Barr, whose writing is both accurate and brave--brave in that she doesn't shy away from unpleasant details and the consequences of previous actions. What other comics author would dare to have a character snipping the balls off reindeer with his teeth? She's also quite willing to show the Allies' disgusting treatment of captive soldiers as, for example, when a panicky gunner turns his gun on a helpless crowd of prisoners, and all one of the other American soldiers can say is "Sorry"; or when, after German soldiers are forced onto the same trains that carried Jews to the death camps, one of the Americans mutters, "No kikes, no Krauts--more room for us!" (Yow!) Barr backs up her viewpoint with the text of an interesting speech she gave at the Sixth Annual Comic Arts Conference (reprinted inside the front and back covers of the book) called "The Truth Is Not Out There" and dealing with history as propaganda.

Of course, the characters are superb. Pfirsich, the Desert Peach, is one of the great characters in comics (not just one of the great gay characters in comics, as has been said elsewhere) and is wholly three-dimensional, at once light-hearted and tragic, "stupid with courage" yet unable to face Udo when he's finally brought to the house. (He also looks terrific in long hair!) As Sartopov or as Udo, the little orderly is quite mad--he can speak German only when he's talking to Pfirsich--yet still a survivor and overjoyed at his reunion with his colonel. Melvin, formerly known as Rosen Kavalier, has mellowed considerably from his devil-may-care war days; indeed, he is now Pfirsich's protector, the sober one in the family, which is quite a switch! And the two women, Lisa and Potzi, are charmingly mercenary; I hope we see more of them.

As usual, Barr's line art is splendid, with plenty going on. I love the various expressions on the faces of the unfortunates who have to deal with Sartopov's collection of genitalia, which is one of the few things he brings out of Siberia.

My only quibble with the story, which is tightly plotted and wastes nothing, is that when Lisa and Potzi get their hands on Udo, it's a little hard to follow the chronology and figure out where they are on their journey. But that's a very small part of an outstanding book. The entire Desert Peach series is highly recommended (really, it's a key part of any collection of non-superhero comics); this one could stand on its own if necessary. Readers fond of post-WWII material will find it especially interesting.

Buy it directly from Donna Barr!

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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