Review by: Zénó Vernyik

12/15/02

Bethlehem Road ISBN: 1887237003

By Nancy Crowe

A book of average size, but in an appealing pinkish violet with a supposedly meaningful cover artwork is in front of me. The picture features two women facing each other; their eyes are shut and the distance between their noses is definitely small. The one on the right wears glasses. Under the two of them is a map and on the map lies a pair of slippers. Next to them stands a small house with a broken window and a sign with the name "Boaz."

Two women, pinkish violet – a lesbian love story. Glasses – highly trained. Map – a new territory to be revealed. Slippers – comfortable, homey life. Map + slippers – homey life (the home) to be found at an unknown place. House – home. Broken window – conflict, outrage. What do we know then? The book is likely to be about a lesbian couple, but also about the discovery of a new territory. A place where peace and comfort is to be found: a new home. Conflict and outrage is likely to come and, of course, in connection with someone named Boaz. The reading of a book, obviously, does not start with the first few words. It does so with the cover. And this cover really is worth a glance or two. It is revealing and wonderfully done.

Still, those printed words are the ones that deserve attention. A book is a book in its words, sentences and paragraphs. Those black letters printed on white sheets can be much more colorful than any kind of cover art. Thus the first paragraph begins, "Ruth glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure the trailer was still attached. The last thing she or Naomi needed was for something else to come loose. But it would be a change to be the ones speeding away instead of being left like turtles in traffic" (11).

This is how the text begins, and it is important to note that it does not only start. It begins in the Peter Brooksian sense (see bibliography), with a beginning that presupposes the end. It points to the ending. In a way, it tells us what is to happen. This short paragraph does the same, or rather it does much more than that cover. "The last thing she or Naomi needed was for something to come loose" (11). Yes, in this story, something will come loose. And not just something, but precisely that which the two of them pull and carry wherever they go and whatever they do. That which slows them down, whatever it may be. There will also be a reversal in the story: from the left ones, they will emerge as those who speed away – on the highway called life with the steering wheel in their hands.

But that is not everything. We have got a Ruth and a Naomi. In Hebrew, Ruth means "friend," and Naomi "pleasantness." But that is not all that they can tell us, but rather a whole story -- that of the Book of Ruth:

    there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. The name of the man {was} Elimelech, and the name of his wife, Naomi; […] Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. They took for themselves Moabite women {as} wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. […] Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband. Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the LORD had visited His people in giving them food. So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.

And, indeed, what we find in the book is a reworking of the Biblical story of Ruth. A radically modern and shockingly subversive mix, though. The two sons of Naomi are exchanged for two girls. This means that Ruth has to be transformed into a lesbian. It also makes the man Boaz into a woman. Of course, the possibility of ambisexuality (Cf. the article by Blumstein in the bibliography) remains open, but that would lead to a female-male coupling and therefore back to compulsory heterosexuality (In the following paragraphs, I will use the term "compulsory story" for this standard. Cf. Rich, Adrienne, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" see bibliography) and with it to the all too well-known story: "boy meets girl, they fall in love, marriage, children, death." The idealisation of a kind of standard way of life -- Rich's "compulsory story." That is anything but what a lesbian novel would like to achieve.

What we have is a daring and witty joke, or rather a punch in the face of the heterosexist society and its norms, demands and expectations. A Biblical story turned into a lesbian narrative. Provided that Christianity played, and in most cases still plays, a great part in the keeping of the patriarchal order, what we have is nothing else but the weapon of the enemy turned against itself. To do that, and in such a sophisticated way, is in itself bordering on what one might call prodigal. However, this book still has several surprises.

The reader identifies with the viewpoint of Ruth, even though the point of view is not absolutely constant; sometimes the book features the angle of others, too. The identification process leads the naïve heterosexual reader to a self-contradiction: s/he will be lesbian for a while. And to make the trick much more complete, s/he will get a happy ending and such a narrative that only slightly modifies the framework of the compulsory story, at least on the surface. Two people meet, they fall in love, there is something like a marriage. They live together, and they can finally achieve the state when society accepts them. They have children. It is easy to recognize, though, that by conscious effort, one can easily see the trap: it is not the compulsory story, as here girl meets girl, they will never be married to each other, at least not by state marriage, it is not their biological child, and so on. However closely the line of narration may seem to follow the standard, compulsory track; in reality, it does the opposite.

These features that I have mentioned above might be enough in themselves to make a work worth a reading, perhaps even to grant a well-established name for the text in the canon. But this novel is strong in all other aspects, too. It has a wonderfully flexible and colorful language. The story is captivating and full of humor, but when it is needed it drops the reader into the deepest pit of frustration, anxiety or pity. There are certain sentences that are in themselves worth the reading. Sentences that might become the favorites of those fond of quotes. Not to read this book is not to read a prospective classic. I look forward to read new books from Crowe. Come and join the fanclub!


Bibliography

    Crowe, Nancy. Bethlehem Road. Anaheim: Odd Girls Press, 2002.

    "Behind the Name – the Etimology and History of First Names." 8 December 2002 <http://www.behindthename.com/>.

    Blumstein, Philip W. and Pepper Schwartz. "Bisexuality in Men," Urban Life 5.3 (1976): 339-358.

    Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    The Lockman Foundation. The New American Standard Bible. 8 December 2002 <http://bible.crosswalk.com/>.

    Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". In Henry Abelove et al eds. The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993. 227-254.

 

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