In the 1930s, John "Gene" E. Dawson was a shy, insecure boy who had been born to a struggling Iowa farm family during the Great Depression. In his memoir, Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina, Gene first recalls his years as a "Farm Boy," when he and his brothers worked alongside their parents as soon as they were able and attended country school. But life wasn't all work and school, and he writes about his love for and time with his extended Irish Catholic family.
As a teenager, the "Farm Boy" realized that he never would be like his male peers and interested in girls. When Gene eventually decided that he could not lead a double life and pretend to be heterosexual, he began his life away from the farm as a "City Girl," complete with beautiful clothes and makeup. But that chapter in his life came to an abrupt halt when tragedy struck his family. It would be four more years before he again would live in a city.
Gene's life story takes the reader through the twists and turns of reconciling his love of family, God, and the Catholic Church with being able to accept himself as "Miss Gina." Gene tells his story as it was and doesn't sugarcoat his own flaws.
Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina, by John “Gene” Dawson, is a riveting tell-all memoir that includes intimate details of growing up on share-cropper farms in Iowa during the Tryin’ Thirties. Gene experienced many backbreaking chores as the oldest son of a farmer struggling to make-a-living for his family during the depression, dustbowl, and drought. His recollections provide vivid historical references to the living conditions and farming practices in the 1930s and even information for today’s scientists studying global warming.
Gene was born in 1931 and would soon be followed by five brothers. His parents, grandparents, and many extended Irish relatives lived on nearby farms. Gene’s astounding memories of the trials of scratching out an existence for large families on rented farms with no electricity or running water or indoor plumbing are tempered with his tales of hijinks and school challenges. Gene is able to establish genealogy and family relationships between his large extended family and neighbors. The warmth and love he shows toward his family members are commendable.
Gene recalls being a strong, muscular young boy with strength from hauling feed and baling hay. At puberty, he recognized that he was not attracted to the girls who friended him. He didn’t know what the derogatory terms he heard meant or if they referred to him. By age 20, Gene and his friends had begun to drink and to visit local bars and clubs. With a false ID, he was able to explore larger towns, where “cultural shock over the differences between St. Louis and tiny-town, friendly, all-white rural Iowa” opened his eyes. His lifestyle becomes in direct conflict with his Catholic upbringing. A conflict that he struggles with for the rest of his life.
A friend told him about a gay bar and club where he discovered “queens.” About this time, he learned of some publications with “controversial” knowledge about the gay lifestyle. Gene is very transparent about his orientation and interest in cross-dressing. He received a draft notice and tells an intriguing story of induction into the Marines and his honorable discharge.
As a young adult in St. Louis, Gene becomes fascinated with female impersonators. He soon finds himself emulating them by becoming anorexic and effeminate complete with makeup, wigs, or dyed hair, dresses, and high heels. One Halloween, he avoids being arrested for being in full drag. His descriptions of alcoholism and the party scene are honest and revealing of the culture of the time.
Conflict with his family and his chaotic lifestyle cause several periods of fallout and reconciliation as he matured. Gene’s life as a senior citizen in an interesting contrast to his “coming-of-age.” The author is philosophical and honest as he completes this epic story of one person’s double life and his unwavering love for his family.
Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina is a nonfictional expose of one person’s life covering gender fluidity with a big jump into drag culture. It goes back to the early 1900s and is full of stunning revelations.
Farm Boy to City Girl is a unique, historical retelling of Gene’s (Miss Gina’s) discovery of their sexuality across decades. What makes this LGBTQ+ biography truly special is that it’s told in 3 parts – Farm Boy (1931-1949), Transition (1950-1959) and City Girl (1960-). Instead of getting just a glimpse of what life was like for LGBTQ+ people several decades ago, or in current times, we get what is truly a rare treat – following Gene’s (Miss Gina’s) story through many very important shifts in society and its acceptance, understanding the rights surrounding the LGBTQ+ community.
Farm Boy to City Girl is essentially two life stories connected by a transition. It begins with Gene’s life growing up on rental farms in Iowa during the depression as a strict catholic farm boy. It’s here that we get an understanding of not only the time period but of Gene’s family life and how that eventually plays into the story of his sexuality and the struggle he has with acceptance. From there we enter the transition years, where Gene moves to Cedar Rapids and eventually St. Louis, which is where he begins to fully accept his sexuality and gender identity, exploring gay bars and drag shows, lovers and friends and ultimately begins living his life in the city as Miss Gina. Life as Miss Gina is suddenly put on hold after a sudden death that sends him back to Iowa to live on his family’s farm and face the difficult family drama that waits for him there. Gene eventually returns to city life in Cedar Rapids and St. Louis and dives fully into his identity and life as Miss Gina, through the ups and downs of what faced and continues to face LGBTQ people in the Midwest. We see just what courage it takes to live unapologetically in a world that will do everything to make being truly yourself harder.
I absolutely loved the rare glimpse into what it meant to be gay and gender-fluid in the 20th century. We get so many stories of what it is to be LGBTQ in our modern day but rarely do we get to see a story that not only sheds light on the depression-era 20th century but also every era between then and now. My only issue is that the first part (Farm Boy) can be a little difficult to follow as there are lots of names being thrown around given Gene’s large family, but if you take the time to flip back to his explanation of the family tree in the very beginning of the book it becomes easier to grasp who he’s talking about and how they play into the story and the family as a whole. Overall, this is such an important book. (Silver Award)
An absorbing and inherently interesting life story, "Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina" is an especially well written, organized and presented memoir of a troubled life lived in troubling times. Especially recommended for community and college/university library American Biography and LGBTQ collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina" is also readily available in a digital book format.