Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends - Silas Weir MitchellWhen I started this Inside Reader serial, my idea was to give a chance to various readers to share their favorite books. Of course I started with authors that were more near to my circle, but it's with great pleasure that I'm now able to wide this circle to reach every type of genre. Nancy Garden is a must-read author in the Young Adult Lesbian genre, and she was also very generous in compiling a list that will give to everyone who is new to this genre a wonderful starting point, and to whom instead is a connoisseur, to check if some must-read is missing from their list. More than a simple list, this is almost an essay, and I'm proud to post it today.
My TOP TEN (for Top Ten Insider Readers List)
My ten top books? Well, I thought, that shouldn't be hard.
But wait! "Top" must mean favorites! How can I pare a "list" that probably includes hundreds of dearly loved books of many different kinds to a mere ten?
That seemed impossible, so I made lists in my head, trying desperately to limit my choices. Maybe I could just list children's books. Or gay adult books. Or classics. Maybe books about dogs? Books set in New England, where I live....?
Well, finally, I did narrow it down. My list is of young adult lesbian novels, partly because that may well be the most neglected subgenre in LGBT literature, and partly because I also know that subgenre pretty well and care about it deeply. I can't say these are my "top ten," really, but all of them are important to me personally and/or important historically in the development of YA lesbian literature--which, after all, is a relatively young subgenre.
YA, for folks who may not be familiar with it, is generaly thought to mean books for teenage readers, traditionally kids from 12 to 18. These days that definition is often stretched to include books for readers as young as 10 and as old as 20-something. And these days, too, increasing numbers of older adults read YAs, not only because YAs tend to be on the short side (although that's been changing lately, too), but also because a good many of them are really fine books.
An embarrassed cautionary note: I must confess here that I'm woefully behind in my reading. I have a longish list of very recently published LGBT YAs that for a variety of reasons I haven't yet had been able to beg, borrow, steal, or buy, so I suspect I've missed some wonderful potential additions to this list. I know I'll be very angry about that as soon as I'm able to remedy it.
1. Far from Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (April 1, 2007)
Amazon: Far from Xanadu
Far from Xanadu is the first YA in this genre with a lesbian main character who is clearly very butch. (M.E. Kerr's novel Deliver Us From Evie is about a similar character (Evie),and is a groundbreaking book for that reason. But Evie's straight brother is the point-of-view character and tells the story, so excellent though that book is, we don't get as closely inside Evie's head as we get inside the head of Far from Xanadu's main character, Mike.)
Mike's "real" name is Mary-Elizabeth, but she's called Mike by everyone in her small Kansas hometown. She's quietly out to herself and presumably to everyone who knows her; certainly pretty much everyone accepts that she dresses and acts like a boy. Her best friend is a gay boy named Jamie, who's also widely accepted.
Mike's a star softball player who dreams of one day playing college or even pro ball. Under her late father's tutelege, she's also become a skilled plumber; his plumbing business has always supported the family. But he was an alcoholic, and he committed suicide two years before the book begins, leaving the family in serious financial trouble. Mike's older brother, Darryl, doesn't seem to be doing much to help remedy this situation, and their mother spends her days morosely eating, watching TV, and sleeping. It falls to Mike, whose mourning for her deeply missed father is a mixture of love and fury, to support the family. She does by working for the owner of the local feed store and, soon, by resurrecting her dad's plumbing business.
Added to this mix as the book opens is a beautiful redhead named Xanadu, recently arrived in town to stay wth an aunt and uncle after getting into trouble back home in a Denver suburb. She's gorgeous and needy, a sweet tease and a flirt. Mike falls for her as only a 16-year-old butch can fall, and the development and unraveling of that relationship, plus Mike's financial worries and her softball dreams, drive the plot of this expertly written novel. Mike's story tugs at one's heart, and Peters's setting and characters are so real they seem to leap off the page.
2. Love and Lies by Ellen Wittlinger
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing; 1 edition (December 29, 2009)
Amazon: Love & Lies: Marisol's Story
The main character in this absorbing, emotionally complex YA novel is a young lesbian, Marisol Guzman, one of the two kids at the center of Wittlinger's excellent earlier YA novel Hard Love. In Hard Love, a straight boy, nicknamed Gio, is in love with Marisol, who produces a 'zine; in Love and Lies, Marisol, who is taking a year off before starting college, has two goals: to write a novel and to fall in love. To pay the rent on the apartment she shares with her best friend Birdie and his boyfriend, Damon, Marisol is working in a coffee shop, and to move toward one of her goals, she's also taking a course in novel writing.
The course, which her old friend Gio is also taking, is taught by a gorgeous woman named Olivia Frost. Olivia claims to be 28 and to be working on her own first novel, which, she says, has already caught the interest of a publisher. She praises Marisol's writing and befriends her. Marisol falls head over heels in love (or, one might say, "in crush") with her, and eventually Olivia seduces her.
Meanwhile Lee, a lonely girl who's a high school senior and who patronizes the coffee shop, develops a crush on Marisol. Despite finding her neediness annoying, Marisol is nice to her, gradually grows to like her, and is so besotted with Olivia that she is blind to the growing seriousness of Lee's feelings for her.
For a while it looks as if Marisol's two goals are converging via her novel-writing class. But soon it becomes clear to the reader (although not to Marisol) that Olivia Frost is a living example of "handsome is as handsome does." Even when Marisol begins to have tiny doubts, she is able to make excuses for Olivia until she, Gio, Birdie, Damon--and Lee--travel to Provincetown for a weekend--and Olivia shows up unexpectedly.
There have been a number of books over the years about girls--lesbian, probably lesbian, and straight--who have crushes on older women, but this is the first contemporary one that I know of, and it's the most complex, the most analytical, and the most explicit treatment of that situation. Love and Lies even works as a non-didactic cautionary tale--and what's more, it's a heck of a good read, too.
3. The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Puffin; Reprint edition (November 11, 2010)
Amazon: The House You Pass On The Way
Woodson's prose is like music in this sweet, gently told story of a 14-year-old girl's awakening to the possibility of being gay. The story itself is as lovely and honest as its prose.
Staggerlee, who has given herself the name of a strong and defiant black folk hero, is the daughter of a black father and a white mother. She learned the original Staggerlee's story from a film clip of the last show her vaudevillian grandparents did before they were killed by a bomb while taking part in a civil rights demonstration.
Although she loves solitude and takes long walks with her dog, Staggerlee also longs for friends. She feels that something sets her apart from other girls; is it possible she might be gay? She's still haunted by the memory of a girl she once kissed who later betrayed her. And now, as the book opens, she thinks about the summer before, when her cousin, Trout, came to visit...
That summer, as the two girls get to know each other, Staggerlee feels sure she's found a soulmate who shares her feeling of being different. She and Trout talk about that a little--Trout tells Staggerlee that she's been sent to stay with Staggerlee's family in order to learn how to "be a lady"--and Staggerlee senses that there's a "secret and shameful" feeling growing inside both of them. Later, Staggerlee tells Trout about her disturbing memory of kissing a girl, and Trout says she's kissed a girl, too. Staggerlee speaks of reading a book in which a woman who loved another woman killed herself, and they wonder what all of that means, what it would be like.
A friend of Trout's, Rachel, has called Trout a few times during the summer, and when Staggerlee says she's thought she's Trout's girlfriend, Trout laughs and explains that when Rachel calls she tells Trout about parties she's gone to and the boys who've liked her. Not long after that, she tells Staggerlee that Rachel's arranged a date for her when she's back home, and she's agreed to go, although she doesn't know why, and they talk a bit about having to lie about their true feelings. Staggerlee tells Trout that she doesn't know if she's gay, and Trout writes "Staggerlee and Trout were here today. Maybe they will and maybe they won't be gay" in the dirt.
Summer ends and Trout leaves. Staggeree, who's become more confident, begins to find other friends, and she and Trout continue their friendship via phone. But by the end of October, Trout has stopped calling and doesn't respond to the messages Staggerlee leaves on her answering machine. Finally a letter arrives, a long and loving letter, in which Trout tells Staggerlee that she has a boyfriend, but she wants to go on being close to Staggerlee, "even if we don't have the girl thing in common any more."
Staggerlee rereads the letter often as time goes by, and she thinks about her new friends and Trout and wonders who she and Trout both really were and are. And finally she concludes that "They were both waiting. Waiting for this moment, this season, these years to pass....Who would they become?"
The House You Pass on the Way is the second novel in this genre to show a very young main character openly wonderng about his or her sexual orientation, and the first one in which that character is a girl. The first, the late John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, was published by Harper and Row way back in 1969. It's focused on a friendship between two young boys, and the ending, like the ending of The House You Pass on the Way, leaves open the possibility that the kids may or may not end up being gay, and through the characters concludes that either way, it's okay. Donovan's was an appropriate conclusion for a book in 1969 about very young teens, as, I think, is the conclusion of Woodson's beautiful and subtle book nearly thirty years later.
4. Dare Truth or Promise by Paula Boock
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Graphia; Reprint edition (March 2, 2009)
Amazon: Dare Truth or Promise
Like many young lesbian lovers, Willa and Louie, the appealing teenage pair in this book, have to battle parental objections, in their case, primarily on the part of Louie's mother. Willa has recently left her first love, Cathy, after the strain of Cathy's disapproving and very religious family has been too much for both of them, but especially for Cathy. Now Willa has met Louie and the two have fallen quickly and deeply in love. But Louie's mother is suspicious, and when she finds out the truth, the result nearly breaks both girls. So does the untimely reappearance of Cathy, Willa's needy, mentally unstable ex.
Paula Boock knows her teenagers well and has created engaging characters in this story, which takes place in New Zealand. She writes well, often eloquently, and the story is suspenseful and absorbing. The plot is complicated, with many teenage characters, both from the fast food restaurant where Louie and Willa both work, and fom the school they both attend. Boock tells the story in alternating chapters from each girl's point of view, which works well in that it gives us more than usual insight into their very different personalities, backgrounds, perceptions, and family situations. Their relationship is not a smooth one, and there are many obstacles, supplied by Louie's mother, the reappearance and implied suicide threat of Cathy, understandable jealousy on the part of Louie and her questions about her own sexuality, Willa's fear of being involved with another needy and unstable lover , and misunderstandings all around. All of this is realistic and believable given the characters' natures and the tensions they face. There is, admittedly, an attempted suicide by car crash at the book's climax, and that can't help but remind readers of the fact that both were such staples of early gay literature that they eventually became clichés. In those early days, as most readers of this blog probably know, tragic endings were frequently required by publishers as "punishments" to show that gay people come to tragic ends, largely in an attempt to avoid moralistic negative reviews and attacks by would-be censors. And some authors undoubtedly used such endings to show that homophobia sometimes does drive gay people to suicide. Although in recent years most publishers and authors of LGBT fiction have shunned such endings, given this year's media coverage of suicides by gay teens, and the fact that such suicides still do occur in real life despite increased acceptance of homosexuality, that could change.
In Dare Truth or Promise, it's not really homophobia that leads to the car crash, nor is it 100% clear it's a suicide attempt, although much later, Louie admits that it "sort of" was. All the tensions these two young lovers have been facing mount to a near frenzy toward the end of the book, especially for Louie. After the Cathy situation is resolved and Cathy is in much-needed therapy, Louie and Willa are so emtionally battered they're barely speaking to each other. When they do speak, it's only about Cathy, and Louie can't tell how Willa feels about either Cathy or her. Then at a school dance Louie sees Willa with a date (Willa is there reluctantly, but Louie doesn't know that). Willa looks beautful, ignores Louie, and talks and laughs with her friends as if nothing is wrong. Louie is distraught, and after driving her own friends to a post-dance party, she bursts inside, pushes Willa's date to the ground and hysterically, tearfully confronts Willa. Then, as abruptly as she arrived, she leaves and speeds away in her car in the pouring rain.
Willa runs outside and chases goes after her on foot without knowing if Louie is driving or running. We see the next scene through Willa's eyes as she remembers it in fragments later: she comes upon the wrecked car, sees someone inside, summons help, and returns as Louie is being pulled out, hurt, but alive--the latter at least partly due to Willa's ministrations.
Slowly in the days that follow, Louie heals and comes to terms with her sexuality, Willa realizes that Louie is not another Cathy, and the two girls at last recognize and accept the strength of their love. It's clear that they're now both whole enough and wise enough to have a good chance of being able to nurture and sustain it, too.
5. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Dial; 1 edition (June 10, 2010)
Amazon: A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend
I think it's largely the close friendships among the "theater geeks" in this book that make it so appealing, as well as the individual characters. The "love story" of the title could well apply not only to the obvious romantic pairs in the story, but also to the deep, intense friendship-love the theater kids feel for one another, even when they fight. Equally appealing is the intensity with which Cass (Cassandra), the main character, mourns her dead best friend, Julia, and with which she undertakes her painful journey toward healing and self-realization, which includes finally coming out.
Another thing that makes this book special is its non-linear structure. It opens with a prologue in the form of a letter Cass writes to Julia as she bikes to California where she's taking Julia's ashes. Why? Because she and Julia had planned to travel there together during the summer before their senior year in high school, but Julie died in the spring, speeding on a dark road on a rainy night.
After the prologue, the book then proceeds in chapters labeled "Now" and "Then." The "Now" chapters document what happened in late summer when Cass returned from her bike trip. In those chapters, Cass and her friends work on producing a musical written by Julia shortly before she died, called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. Cass also gradually comes to terms with her true feelings for Heather, her nemesis back in middle school, who is now playing a lead in and sewing costumes for the musical.
The "Then" chapters document Cass's bike trip, during which she tries to survive on her own, deal with various emergencies, mourn Julia, and sort out her feelings about herself and her theater friends, from whom she has always felt somewhat removed.
When Cass's bike gets stolen, putting an end to her trip, she's rescued by her theater friends in scenes that are very moving and also made me smile. Cass is surer of herself and of her relationships after this experience, and ready to face and handle whatever life hands her. She has become both more independent and more tied to the community of which she is a part--a good place for any teen to be.
6. Finding H.F. by Julia Watts
Paperback: 168 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1st edition (October 1, 2001)
Amazon: Finding H.F.: A Novel
What a delight this book is to read! It's a serious story that's told with a light touch, and moreover, it's the first gay YA I know of that's tightly focused on a friendship between a gay girl and a gay boy. Having had a close friendship with a gay boy myself when I was a teen--a friendship that continues today--I was especially pleased to find this book.
Both kids--H.F., the girl who's the main character, and her friend, Bo--live in a tiny, dirt-poor Kentucky town. Bo lives with his mother, who works overtime in a bandage factory, and his abusive father, who used to be a logger, but who hurt his back and now spends his days drinking and abusing Bo. H.F. lives with her Memaw--her grandmother--who's cared for her since H.F.'s mother ran away at 16, a year after giving birth illegitimately to H.F. Memaw, passionately religious, named her granddaughter Heavenly Faith (hence H.F.). She loves H.F. dearly, but she's always refused to talk to her about her own daughter, H.F.'s mother.
Bo's been beaten up regularly by his father and the toughs at school. He plays the flute and dreams of going to college to study music. He hasn't come right out and told H.F. in so many words that he's gay; it's just understood between them. H.F., on the other hand, who looks like a boy and is pretty open about being gay, tells Bo about the girls she likes. When the story begins, the girl of the hour is Wendy, the beautiful daughter of a college professor.
The novel tracks the progress of H.F.'s romance with Wendy, but also her growing desire to find out more about her mother. When Wendy and H.F. have a falling out, and when H.F. finds an envelope with her mother's Florida address on it, she convinces Bo to drive her there in his rattletrap car as soon as school's out for the summer. With any luck, H.F. thinks, she may finally be able to meet her mother.
They create an elaborate lie to get MeMaw to agree to the trip. On the way, they meet three runaways: a teenage lesbian couple and their lesbian friend. Through them, they meet a gay man whose lover of 18 years is the minister of a local Metropolitan Community Church (a sort of denomination of primarily gay churches). The two men regularly shelter runaways in return for their agreeing to attend services. Bo bonds with one of the men, who becomes a sort of father figure for him, and H.F. has a brief fling with the friend of the lesbian couple. Both kids revel in meeting people like themselves and discovering that there are more gay people and gay-friendly places than they'd ever imagined. Despite their seeming a little contrived, I've admired and enjoyed Finding H.F. so much that I've been willing to suspend the shred of disbelief I've felt when reading about these happy encounters.
Although H.F. does find her mother, she turns out to be a big disappointment, and initially H.F. sheds a good many painful tears. But gradually she recovers and is able to think of her mother realistically and be glad, at least, that now she can put her questions about her to rest.
On their way home, H.F. and Bo nearly have to blow their cover and apply to MeMaw for help when their money is stolen. But Wendy, whom they call, ends up wiring them funds, and it's clear when she agrees to do that that she loves H.F.. MeMaw is so glad to see Bo and H.F. home safely that she forgives H.F. for making the trip under false pretences. And after H.F. and Bo have been back home for a while, Bo learns that one of the two men they met on their journey has managed successfully to get him a scholarship to a college in Atlanta. It's a happy ending that can't help but put a smile on one's face, and a story that makes one laugh and cry and fall in love with the characters. The sparkling dialogue and vivid descriptions alone are a pleasure to read. Julia Watts richly deserves the Lambda Book Award she got for Finding H. F.
7. Country Girl, City Girl by Lisa Jahn-Clough
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 185 pages
Publisher: Graphia; Reprint edition (May 18, 2009)
Amazon: Country Girl, City Girl
Country Girl, City Girl came out seven years after The House You Pass on the Way and is, to the best of my knowledge, only the second YA novel that explores the probable lesbian awakening of a very young girl.
The main character, Phoebe, is thirteen. Her mother died when she was two, but although she wishes she knew more about her, she lives happily with her father and brother on a farm in Maine, wants to be a photographer when she grows up, and enjoys reading fairy tales to her pet goat, Petunia, who's pregnant. She doesn't have any close friends, but she's looking forward to a quiet summer reading to Petunia, looking forward to the birth of her next kids or kids, photographing animals, and walking in the woods nearby.
But then her dad announces that he's gotten a call from his late wife's best friend, an actress named Gerelyn. He explains that Gerelyn, who's been extremly depressed, is going to a clinic for the summer, and that she wants to send her daughter, Melita, to stay at the farm while she's away.
Phoebe is not pleased. Not only will she have to give up the guest room that she uses as a workshop, but since Melita is close to her own age, she realizes she's probably going to have to be the one to entertain her.
And when Melita actually arrives, Phoebe's even more upset. Melita is, admittedly, striking looking, even intriguing, but she wears a see-through t-shirt, jeans that reveal her belly button, and fancy sandals that show off her gold toenails, and she unpacks a formidable array of cosmetics. In short, she's far too grown-up and sophisticated for Phoebe's taste. What's more, Phoebe's sure she'll be squeamish about the farm; she's even nervous about the goats! But she does pat Petunia, asks all kinds of questions about the farm, and does chores when asked, even after the rooster spooks her. She changes clothes often from her collection of un-farm-like outfits--but she takes an interest in Phoebe's photography--and slowly, the two girls become friends despite their differences. Soon they combine their interests in plans for a fashion show built around updated femninist fairytale characters.
As they work on ideas for the show, they talk with each other about their lives and their dreams. One day Melita asks Phoebe if she's ever kissed a boy and she confesses that Michael, her father's kind hired hand on whom she has a crush, kissed her cheek once. Melita says that's "not a "real kiss" and asks, "Want me to to show you how?"
And when she does, Phoebe finds it exciting.
Later she worries about that and wonders if friends are supposed to kiss each other. One day when she encounters Michael in the barn, suddenly, impusively. she kisses him. After he, bewildered, stops her, she tells him that she just wanted to see what it was like to kiss a boy. She realizes that although it was nice, it wasn't as exciting as kissing Melita.
Not long after that Gerelyn arrives and takes Melita home. Soon, though, Phoebe visits her in New York--and toward the end of that visit, after a number of emotional ups and downs, not the least of which involve Melita's dating a boy, Phoebe finally finds the courage to tell Melita how she feels about her.
Melita says she loves Phoebe, too, but isn't sure how she loves her. They both agree they do want to be friends, and they go ahead with the fashion show, which is a great success.
After Phoebe goes home, she and Melita e-mail each other every day and talk on the phone frequently. Soon Phoebe begins to renew an old friendship from long ago. But she knows that Melita is irreplaceable, and she thinks "her kiss had woken me up and changed my life, at least for the time being, and that's all I can ever really know."
Like the boys in Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, and Stagarlee and Trout in The House You Pass on the Way, neither Phoebe nor Melita actually comes out for sure, although it's pretty clear to me that Phoebe is probably going to be gay and Melita probably isn't. The important thing, though, in all three of these books is that they show YA literature's gradual acknowledgement that more kids are coming out to themselves or beginning to question their sexuality at younger ages than many adults have been ready to acknowledge.
The next three books on my list are huge milestones in the development of lesbian literature for young adults. All three influenced and encouraged me when I was trying to write a lesbian novel myself--whether for adults or kids, I didn't know at first.
8. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Anchor; 9th THUS edition (October 18, 1990)
Amazon: The Well of Loneliness: A 1920s Classic of Lesbian Fiction
(Although I first read Well in the 50s, probably in paperback, the hardcover edition I own is I think one of the earliest U.S. editions. The book was first published in England by Jonathan Cape in 1928 and the first US edition was published almost simutaneously by Knopf, so although the only date on the copyright page of the edition I own is the 1928 copyright date, I'm not sure quite when the Blue Ribbon Books edition appeared. In any case, there have been a great many editions of this famous and infamous book, both in English and in other languages; as far as I know, it's never been out of print.)
I suppose I'm cheating by including The Well of Loneliness on my list, for it's definitely not a YA, and I doubt very much that its author had any thought of writing it for kids, although I suspect she'd be glad to know that kids have read it. I devoured it at 15 or 16, and more than any other book, it made me vow, as I've said many times, "to write a book for my people that would end happily." The Well of Lobneliness is the seminal lesbian novel in the history of lesbian literature in English, and as such is the foundation on which all the others have been built.
Radclyffe Hall was born in 1880, and given the name Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall. She eventually dropped the Marguerite and the hyphen and was known publically as Radclyffe Hall, and as John to her lovers and friends. She was a very masculine woman who I suspect today would be considered transgender--and the main character in Well, Stephen Gordon, is very like her.
Well was Hall's fifth novel, and has always been her best known. It's by no means great literature, for it's didactic, melodramatic, and written in a florid, extravagantly emotional style, one which seems to spring from its author's deepest feelings and convictions; Hall in effect made of her story a much-needed call to arms.
Well was instantly a sensation when it came out, and was tried for obscenity in both England and the US. In the US it was eventually ruled not obscene, but in England it was banned; Hall, who died in 1943, did not see her most famous and, to her, probably her most important novel openly sold in her native country.
Well was published with a brief, enthusiastic and sympathetic "Commentary" by Havelock Ellis, a noted psychologist who often studied and wrote about sex, including homosexuality, or "inversion," as it was then called.
The novel opens with Stephen Gordon's birth, and documents her development--much like her creator's--as a strong, athletic girl who disdains feminine clothes and pursuits. As Stephen grows up, she becomes increasingly masculine, falls in love with at least one woman who of course is straight, becomes a writer, visits and then moves to Paris with her faithful old governess and mentor, and meets others like herself (one of whom is modeled on the famous American lesbian Natalie Barney, who ran a literary salon there that included many other well-known lesbians of the time. During World War I Stephen serves for England as an ambulance driver and meets her true love, Mary, also an ambulance driver. After the war she lives with her in Paris and renews her acquaintance with the lesbians she knew ealier and meets more "inverts," visits a gay bar (which, as of course usually must have been the case then, is both horrible and pathetic). Through that experience, and through the stories and experiences of some of Stephen and Mary's lesbian friends, Hall shows her readers some of the terrible injustices visited on the gays and lesbians of nearly a century ago.
Eventually, Mary finds it increasingly difficult to live in a world that doesn't accept her and her lover. When she meets a man who is attracted to her and finds herself attracted to him as well, Stephen drives her, despite her protests, into his arms in a painfully sacrificial gesture. Yes, that, and the final scene that follows it, are both terribly melodramatic, but nevertheless when I read them in my teens, they moved me as no scene in any other book ever had.
In that final scene when Mary is gone, we see the depth of Stephen's grief. She cries out to Mary when she's out of sight and hearing, then thinks of the suffering she has seen among her gay sisters and brothers. Then she cries out to God, and Well ends with her words: "Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence!"
9. Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller
Paperback: 225 pages
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press (September 1, 2005)
Amazon: Patience & Sarah (Little Sister's Classics)
Isabelle Miller, originally named Alma Routsong, was born in 1924 and died in 1996. In an afterword to the McGraw Hill edition of Patience and Sarah, Miller explains that she based her novel on the relationship of a painter, Mary Ann Willson, and a woman known as Miss Brundiand. The two lived together, like the fictional Patience and Sarah, on a farm in New York State in the early 19th century.
The McGraw-Hill jacket flap says Miller first published Patience and Sarah herself "in a limited edition" under the title A Place for Us. According to an article by Margaret Soenser Breen and Elsa A. Bruguier in the online encyclopedia at glbtq.com and in The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, (Claude J. Summrs, ed.; Henry Holt, 1995), she finished the book in 1967 and had it printed by 1969 when, again according to Breen and Brugier, it was "sold on Village street corners and at meetings of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis" (an early lesbian organization). Since the later McGraw-Hill edition bears a 1969 copyright date, Miller must have had it copyrighted herself as well. And according to Breen and Bruguier, Patience and Sarah won the American Library Association's Gay Book Award in 1971; McGraw-Hill finally published it in 1972.
Publishing lore has long said that Miller intended the novel for young adults--i.e., teens--but nevertheless,
McGraw-Hill published it for adults. It's easy to see why, for in the late 60s-early 70s, any book--especially any book for kids--that treated homosexual characters positively, let alone made it clear that they could actually fall in love and lead happy, healthy, productive lives, would almost automatically have been a potential target of would-be censors and worse. But it's ironic that back in 1969, the year in which Patience and Sarah was sold on the street--and three years before Mc-Graw Hill published it for adults--Harper & Row courageously brought out the late John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, for kids.
Patience and Sarah is a lovely, romantic novel and one that was eagerly welcomed by many lesbians in the barren 1970s. The fact that someone had written and published a book whose main characters, young farm women in their 20s, fall in love both physically and emotionally and surmount numerous obstacles in order to leave their homes and form a life together gave tremendous encouragement both to would-be authors of lesbian fiction like me and to young lesbian readers who were struggling more than a century later against obstacles similar to those facing Patience and Sarah.
Sarah, at twenty-one the younger of the two and the "biggest" in a family of daughters, has been brought up to dress and work like a man on her family's farm. Though she does this well and takes pride in it, she still considers herself a woman. Patience, older by six years, leads a more conventional life in her half of the house she shares with her brother and her brother's wife and children. When she can take time away from helping her sister-in-law, who is often ill or pregnant, she paints.
Patience is strong-willed woman, a staunch feminist at heart (although she probably would not have known the term), but she doesn't hesitate to use feminine wiles with Sarah or with anyone who stands in her and Sarah's way when it suits her needs. The relationship between the two mirrors the cliché butch-femme model of lesbian couples, which was much more common--much more expected, too--in the 1970s than it is today.
Patience and Sarah have many moments of doubt and disagreement as they struggle first to understand and accept their love for each other and then to leave the security of their lives under the protection of Sarah's father and Patience's brother. But in the end, their love prevails, and they journey successfully alone and unchaperoned from their homes in Connecticut all the way to New York--and the novel that could have been the first published YA with young lesbian lovers has a clearly happy ending.
10. Happy Endngs Are All Alike by Sandra Scoppetone
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Alyson Books; 1st Alyson Classics library ed edition (February 1, 2000)
Amazon: Happy Endings Are All Alike: A Novel (Alyson Classics Library)
This book is of enormous historical importance, as important to lesbian YA literature, I think, as John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip is to gay YA literature in general, and to gay male YA literature in particular. Happy Endings is the first YA that is focused on a clearly identified lesbian main character in her teens who falls in love with a girl who loves her back and with whom she has a sexual relationship.
Jaret Taylor lives with her parents and brother, and when the book opens, she is already out to herself and is having an affair with her friend Peggy Danziger. Jaret's mother discovers some love letters Peggy has written her, asks her if Jaret and Peggy are lovers. Jaret says they are.
Although Mrs. Taylor--Kay--is concerned, she doesn't react with the anger, terror, or disgust that might well be expected of a mother in the 1970s. Although Jaret's father, when much later he learns that Jaret is gay, has much more trouble accepting the truth about his daughter, Kay remains accepting and supportive throughout the novel.
Peggy lives with her recently widowed father and her homely and thoroughly unpleasant older sister, Claire. Peggy misses her mother terribly, as does her depressed and remote father; Claire does not. To keep house for her father and sister, Claire has taken a break from college where she had been majoring in psychology, and has vowed to stay home till Peggy graduates from high school. She never lets Peggy forget her sacrifice or that she thinks Peggy is a spoiled brat; she also makes it clear that she is jealous of Peggy's good looks, and, when she learns about Peggy's relationship with Jaret, she is disgusted and insists that Peggy is sick. At that point she leaves home to resume her studies, vowing never to return.
Jaret's young brother, Chris, counts among his friends a boy named Mid Summers. Early in the book we learn that Mid's goal for summer vacation is to "get me a piece." Chris isn't particularly fond of Mid, but since his other friends like him, or seem to, Chris goes along with them. So when the boys see Jaret and Peggy walking hand-in-hand in the woods, and Mid says, "What are they, queers?" and the other boys laugh, Chris answers, "Yeah, sure. They're just made for each other." Mid pursues the subject, and at that point, Chris, now on the defensive, makes up a fictional boyfriend for Jarret. But secretly, he begins to wonder about his sister's sexuality.
Like teenage couples everywhere, Jaret and Peggy don't have much of anyplace where they can go to be alone--except the woods, where they often meet to talk, read, picnic, and make love. And one day while they're there, Peggy, after a good deal of hesitation, tells Jaret that a boy has asked her for a date--a boy whom she used to date but who broke up with her. Then, after more hesitation, she tells Jaret that she has accepted his invitation. Jaret is upset; Peggy tells her the date doesn't mean anything and that she still loves Jaret, but one thing leads to another, and in the course of the argument, Peggy confesses that it's hard being a lesbian and that she wishes sometimes that one of them were a boy. The argument escalates and finally Peggy leaves.
Jaret stays in the woods, hoping that Peggy will come back. But instead of Peggy, Mid appears, and in a chilling scene, slowly reveals that he knows Jaret and Peggy are lovers and that he has in fact actually watched them make love. Then he pulls out a knife and orders Jaret to lie down. What follows is an extremely sadistic rape and beating--so vividly overpowering that when I first read Happy Endings around the time when it was published, that scene colored my reaction to the whole book, and blinded me to the fact that it does, in fact, end on a note of hope.
When I re-read Happy Endings years later, I was again struck by the violence of the rape scene, and again upset that Peggy, despite being loving to Jaret when she first visits her in the hospital, breaks up with her when a newspaper story reveals their affair and Jaret decides to press charges. But that is certainly a believeable scenario, especially for a character who has felt uncomfortable with the relationship even before the rape. And I realized in that second reading that in the final scene between Jaret and Peggy, Peggy, though she's still worried about what other people think, does let Jaret know that she still loves her and wants to be with her. At that point, both girls agree they can't promise to feel that way forever, but that they do for the present.
Even back when I was first disappointed in the ending of Happy Endings, which came out four years before my first published lesbian novel, Annie on My Mind, Scoppetone's book encouraged me greatly and made me feel that yes, the book I'd been trying to write for years was perhaps really possible to publish. I was then and still am full of gratitude to Scoppetone for writing Happy Endings, and full of admiration for her tremendous courage in writing this most important groundbreaking YA novel.
All of us who have come after these three pioneers stand on the combined shoulders of Hall, Miller, and Scoppetone.
About Nancy Garden: Nancy Garden (born May 15, 1938 in Boston, Massachusetts) is an American author of children's and young adult literature.
She is best known for her novel, Annie on My Mind (1982), which was critically acclaimed but attracted controversy because of its lesbian characters, Annie and Liza who fall in love. It was one of the first teen novels to feature lesbian characters in a positive light. In 1993, it was banned by the Kansas City school system and burnt in demonstrations. It was returned to shelves only after a First Amendment lawsuit by students in 1995. It is #48 on the American Library Association's list of 100 Most Frequently Banned or Challenged Books, 1990-2000.
Garden earned a B.F.A. (1961) and an M.A. (1962) from Columbia University School of Dramatic Arts. Through school and for several years after college, Garden worked in theater, supplementing the work with odd jobs in offices. She later taught school and worked as an editor of children's literature. She has also written non-fiction, mystery and fantasy for children and young adults. Other titles also feature GLBT characters. In 2001, Garden received the Robert B. Downs Award for Intellectual Freedom from the University of Illinois' Graduate School of Library and Information Science. In 2003, the American Library Association awarded her the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing books for teens. Garden's review of young adult titles have appeared in the Lambda Literary Foundation's Lambda Book Report.
She currently divides her time between Massachusetts and Maine, with partner Sandy Scott, their golden retriever, Loki, and their cats.
Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); 1st edition (February 20, 2007)
Amazon: Annie on My Mind
This groundbreaking book, first published in 1982, is the story of two teenage girls whose friendship blossoms into love and who, despite pressures from family and school that threaten their relationship, promise to be true to each other and their feelings.
Of the author and the book, the Margaret A. Edwards Award committee said, "Nancy Garden has the distinction of being the first author for young adults to create a lesbian love story with a positive ending. Using a fluid, readable style, Garden opens a window through which readers can find courage to be true to themselves."
The 25th Anniversary Edition features a full-length interview with the author by Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center. Ms. Garden answers such revealing questions as how she knew she was gay, why she wrote the book, censorship, and the book's impact on readers - then and now.