In another life, Amber Fraley might have studied biology. Growing up between Wichita and Lawrence, Fraley has always been transfixed by the wild stillness of the Panorama at the Natural History Museum.
Now, the Gen X writer and mother of two has channeled her love of the natural world into The Bug Diary, a 2021 release from Lawrence’s own Anamcara Press. The novel, categorized as New Adult and College Fantasy, follows University of Kansas freshman Khymer Charvat, a budding entomologist with a backchannel to the paranormal.
When the ghost of Carrie Watson — the Carrie Watson, famously stern and thorough head librarian of what is now the Watson Library — gives Khymer a mysterious handwritten catalog of local insects, the Maryland native is tasked to use the journal to “reveal what is overlooked.” Khymer’s otherworldly visits are not the only mysterious part of college life; she must also navigate fading and growing relationships, casual hookups, and the politics of the local bar scene.
Describing herself as a creative writing major who avoided Mass Street, Fraley draws on memories of exploring the hills and historic buildings on campus from her own time as a KU student. With a first-year’s energy, Fraley’s story wanders through the landmarks of Jayhawk Boulevard, capturing the sensory-seeking whims of Khymer’s vividly drawn cohort, from the bustling floors of Oliver to the basement stacks of the Watson, to the echo-y annals of Dyche Hall after dark.
To capture Khymer’s voice, Fraley tapped her teen daughter for current slang, and wondered, “What would happen if Harriet the Spy went to college?”
What happens to Khymer, of course, is what happens to most of us in our first year on our own: she has to learn how to stand up for herself, and bites off more than she can chew — but not without discovering her power, the value of good friends, and a new species of insect. The mystery behind the ghost-bestowed diary, like the other Lawrence “Easter eggs” in Fraley’s novel, is based on a true and essential piece of KU history, left best for the reader to find alongside Fraley’s funny and fiery (and recognizably self-conscious) heroine.
Khymer’s contemporary perspective highlights the value of “New Adult” as an emerging literary category, which includes campus novels, tales of recent graduates, and stories that feature the woes and triumphs of anyone whose coming-of-age has been delayed by inequality, recession, and now, a pandemic. What does it mean to grow up during a time when all the traditional markers of maturity — a house of one’s own, say, or children, or retirement — seem to exist out of reach? To what end do young adults move on a timeline that could be truncated by climate change?
There’s nothing that helps us answer (or simply ask) these questions like a story. And perhaps, a story about bugs.
Khymer Charvat sees a future in preserving a small but vital part of the Kansas ecosystem, and may appear in a few more Lawrence-based sequels.
Fraley, for her part, is content to research science vicariously, and remains optimistic that our corner of the prairie will continue to be a community in which artists, writers, and thinkers can thrive, long into the years ahead: “Lawrence has always been home to progressive, intellectual, and artistic pursuits. I don’t see that changing. Ever.”
The Bug Diary is available at The Raven Book Store at 809 Massachusetts St. in Lawrence, or at amberfraley.com.