Beulah Land by Nancy Stewart (November 16,. 2017); 250 pages. Available from Interlude Press/Duet Books here: https://store.interludepress.com/collections/beulah-land-by-nancy-stewart
There is something about a tough, smart girl in fiction or film that just melts me. Perhaps it’s because I always felt scrappy inside, but was never that brave. Perhaps it’s because every young lesbian girl like me grows up knowing she will have to fight just to keep herself intact–this feeling is acute and transforming, whether or not that fight ever comes. One feels oneself always endangered. For that matter, most “normal” girls do, too. Whatever it is, Violette Sinclair feels like my better self.
Violette is the voice of Beulah Land, and it’s her story. She’s too smart and too gay to be growing up in the small Ozarks enclave she is in is a place where the ruling clan of nasty, dog-fighting, gun-toting jerks is related to the sheriff and there’s little hope of a girl like her surviving. Beulah Land might be a young adult novel, but like the best of those, it makes for good adult reading as well.
Violette has not only her own toughness but the backup of a popular, football-star best friend to help her out. Not only is she bent on rescuing the dogs abused and discarded by the semi-secret dog-fighting ring, but she needs to discover and fix her own family: her father was murdered when she was younger (and she needs to know what), her mother has a secret past (Vi wants to learn what it is), and her sister is resentful and sometimes cruel to her (one wants a tearful apology and reunion).
The story is told in the voice of Vi, who is determined, tough, take-no-crap and smart. Hers is a great voice to guide us through her own story, and it’s satisfying that she gets to have that control. There’s a comfort, too, through all that awfulness, to know she comes out well enough to tell us the tale.
This is a coming-of-age story in which the coming-of-age is rougher than the one most people experience. All the elements familiar to most of us–secrecy, trauma, helplessness and fight–are there, just writ larger and more dangerous for Vi. It’s about a girl coming to own herself–she’s a lesbian and an animal lover with a strong sense of justice, and all of that gets her in trouble in her small neck of the swamp. One gets the sense that she’s loved despite these things instead of because of them. But she fights on to find happiness and peace, not only for herself but for those she loves. This is no small thing for us queers, and we need narratives that give us this.
When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, there weren’t narratives like this available to me. As a young girl, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was, because nobody spoke of it… ever, anywhere. There were no lesbians on TV, or in the movies outside of porn (and porn didn’t really present a real picture, I knew), or in novels available to me as a kid. In college, I found The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues and Mrs. Danvers, none of which gave me very much hope. As a result, it took me longer than it might have otherwise to recognize myself and come out as queer. I knew I was different, and I figured there was something wrong with me because I could not feel complete, deep love for my boyfriends. I have a feeling this story is not uncommon. I felt fight in me, and wildness, and passion, but had no way to express it in the real world. I wish there’d been a Violette Sinclair for me to find. I’m glad there is now.