Attn: Rita Mae Brown,
While I was browsing the bizarre, antiquated stacks at the Oklahoma Department of Libraries your book “High Hearts’ caught my eye. I read the dust(y) jacket and perked right up.
Southern belle Geneva Chatwood loves her fiancé Nash Hart so much that when the War of Northern Aggression breaks out five days after their marriage she decides to cut her hair and run off to fight by his side. She figures this won’t be a problem because she was raised on a horse plantation, so she can ride really well. Also, she is very plucky.
Geneva was the apple of her daddy’s eye. Henley Chatwood, a crack whiz in the field of equine husbandry, knew his eldest son was a dud so Geneva became the heir apparent. Unwilling to break her father’s heart, Geneva waits until he leaves to head up the commissary regiment (shameful, really) before she sets her plan in motion.
Of course, she can’t just disappear in the middle of the night, so Geneva tells her mother, Lutie, what’s up. Lutie gets the vapors and spends most of her time talking to her familiar, an invisible Muscleman named Emil. Naturally, this is the first person you want to let in on your potentially life-threatening, romantic undertaking.
Well, shut my mouth if Lutie didn’t take the news in stride. In fact, she’s able to shake off her fog and get right down to work. She enlists the three house servants (slaves with hearts of gold, natch) to help get Geneva’s ruse on the road. It’s that easy! She doesn’t even pause to consider what might happen to her only daughter should she be found out. I guess the rape of an enemy combatant was considered ungentlemanly and just not spoken of in polite circles.
Along the way Geneva – now Jimmy – meets a kindly hillbilly named Banjo. He respects Jimmy completely and safely guides him to Nash’s company, tossing out homespun wisdom like it was Mardi Gras beads. Along their way through the woods absolutely nothing happens. There’s not a shoot-out with some stray Yankees. There’s not a drunken slip-up where Geneva almost gives away her secret. When Geneva arose to bathe in the crick not once did Banjo almost see her naked. Way to raise the stakes, Brown. Now I really can’t wait to see what won’t happen next.
When I picked up a book about a Confederate drag king I expected something pretty great, especially from you, RMB. Instead, I got a book about the Civil War written by someone who had reeeeally done her homework on the subject. Seriously, Rita, didn’t your editor say it was OK to leave out several pages describing the various troop movements? Why didn’t you listen? It’s best to leave that kind of historical geography up to the experts. That’s why the legend of Shelby Foote remains strong. He’s the only one to ever make that crap interesting.
I think it would have been best if you stuck to the fluid gender issues in the story since you’re a lesbian author and all. Not to mention that’s the most interesting aspect of the story. No hard-driving Civil War fact-stickler is going to pick this up thinking you’ve unearthed some forgotten secrets of the battle of Manassas. What you will get are lesbians who have read “Rubyfruit Jungle” wondering why the main character, a butch girl who’s hell on horseback, is ass-over-tit in love with limpest, wettest, fake-Ashley Wilkes in all of Dixie; especially when she grew up sharing a bed with a beautiful slave named Di-Peachy.
Eventually, Geneva and Banjo meet up with Nash’s company where they’re welcomed with open arms and nobody thought anything was suspicious at all; even when a seeming pre-teen boy insisted on shacking up with the ponciest dullard in camp. Not even the company commander, the powerfully mustachioed Mars Vickers, was able to hear the sounds of Geneva and Nash’s scorching love-making emanating from their canvas tent.
This late-onset sex-deafness was probably due to Mars suffering the bitter sting of his beautiful wife’s physical and emotional rejection. She was pissed because being an army wife sucks and no amount of glorious valor will make things less boring when he’s away devoting his time and energy to a losing cause. Mars, realizing that chicks just don’t understand how important bloodshed and horses are to a man and why a man needs strapping sons to carry on his love of the same, left her to her own devices without much thought. When young Jimmy Chatwood joined the company Mars felt that he had finally found the son he’d always wanted. The son his ice bitch of a wife refused to give him.
Hey Rita, here’s an idea, I think it would be super interesting if you borrowed one from the “Yentl” playbook. Have Vickers take the young boy under his wing, then get all confused and upset because he wants to bone him. Yeah, it’s not totally original but seeing as how that’s what ultimately happened in the story you could have stoked the slow burn along the way. Instead, after months admiring her skill with horses, with no trace of misguided romantic interest at all, Vickers caught Geneva bathing in the river, realized she was a chick, and promptly fell in love with her. Good thing you got that wrapped up before you ran out of pages, Rita.
Meanwhile, Geneva, when embarking upon achingly detailed scouting missions, realizes that Nash is actually a complete butthole who is pissed because his wife is a better soldier than him. Actually Nash and Geneva both reach this realization independently of one another. Do they confront this issue thus heightening the dramatic tension that fuels so many great stories? No, they just shrug and go back to talking about troop movements.
Rita, did you consider writing a scene where Nash, horrified by his wife’s newly discovered love of combat and general unladylike comportment, threatens to expose her for the woman she is, guaranteeing a one-way trip back to the plantation? She’d be out of harm’s way and Nash could go on being an incompetent soldier without Geneva witnessing his failure. That would be a major turning point in Geneva’s relationship with her husband; you know, the one she loved so much she had to follow him into war. I assume you did dash out a draft of that scene because you really are a good writer before deciding that what the book really needed was more genealogy.
With all troop movements and scouting missions, one would think that Geneva and the boys would see a little action every once in a while. Well, they do. Once. It takes place at the Battle of Manassas, also known as the Battle of Bull run depending on if you’re a Reb or a Yank. Despite its high ranking on the Civil War Battles Recognition List, the way you wrote it Rita makes ‘Billy, Don’t be a Hero’ sound like fucking Khe Sanh. Nobody important dies, not even a beloved horse. Geneva, despite having little to no military training, comes through unscathed. Banjo gets his hat shot off and everyone relaxes around the fire, gnawing their hardtack. The sounds of dying men and maggot-filled corpses lulling them to sleep like a babbling brook.
Since clearly, nothing exciting is happening on the battlefield, let’s check in with the women who were left behind. Even though the main characters live to fight another day, war produces many casualties and, as many women know, it’s their job to clean up men’s messes.
Having a daughter out there on the front lines lights a fire under Mama Lutie. When the town council asked her to nurse the wounded, Lutie straighten her magnolia wood spine and organized the best hospital in Chickahominy, or whatever the hell town they lived in. Lutie is such a paragon of Southern lady selflessness that she has the ability to bring all women together. Black and white. Quadroon and high yellow. Slave or free. Diseased whores and uptight housewives all work together to cart off wagons full of severed limbs.
Since the Chatwoods are horse breeders they don’t need many field hands, so that right there shows they’re more humane than Simon Legree over in the next county. That must have been really convenient for you, Rita. This way you were able to mostly skirt the issue of slave ownership. When there are just a handful of them it’s very easy to pretend like the slaves are happy with their simple lives, secure in the knowledge that they too are part of the family. It’s like working for a small business rather than a huge, nameless corporation.
The Chatwood’s main slaves are Auntie Sin-Sin, the Mammy; Ernie June, the Cook, and Di-Peachy, the most beautiful slave of all. She was raised in the house and is Geneva’s very best friend in the whole wide world. When Di-Peachy got angry at Geneva and refused to talk to her before she left I was hopeful for some actual sexual tension. For a while there things were going pretty well. Di-Peachy couldn’t stop crying. She slept every night in Geneva’s bed. Geneva referred to Di-Peachy’s fantastic ass. Di-Peachy staunchly refused to get married.
This is good stuff, eh Rita Mae? Denied. Di-Peachy’s promise to never marry was shattered the moment she met a white dude with his leg blown off. Di-Peachy spent the night bathing his fevered brow. He told her she was beautiful and didn’t care that she was a tragic product of race-mixing. Three weeks later they were married.
Alright, fine, Rita. If you don’t have the plums to make Di-Peachy wholly Sapphic then at least delve into the miscegenation would you. That was taboo from every single direction and deserves more attention beyond whispered understanding that things would be “difficult” for the couple. No, from that point on Di-Peachy was absent from the story, save one minuscule crumb at the very end.
The book has an epilogue taking place in 1910 where Geneva is telling her granddaughter all about her Civil War adventures. There we learn that after Nash got killed she married Mars Vickers. (Like anyone at all expected Nash to make it through the war. Mrs. Vickers just left. ) When the granddaughter asks what happened to Di-Peachy and her white man, Geneva simply says that it’s too horrible to talk about. Great Brown, so I guess you ran out of pages to tell that story as well.
I’m sure you think I’m being overly critical, Rita, and that’s because I am. I read “Rubyfruit Jungle” at an influential time in my life and it made quite an impression on me, as it did many girls questioning their feelings for Devon from the “Rock the Cradle of Love” video. Granted that up until “High Hearts” that was the only book of yours I’d read, but I know people love those Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries so I figured you had your head together. If anyone could write a story of cross-dressing, Civil-War, forbidden love, it would be you.
In the book’s introduction, you explained that this story was very personal to you because your family tree goes all the way back there and somebody still owns a fraction of the land. You talked about all the hours you spent at the Richmond Historical Society researching the war and the role your family played in it. But this book reads like you retyped your notes, threw in a few mentions of the characters before getting back to show off how much you learned about horse tack and Robert E. Lee’s nephew.
Erin Lady Byrne
You can email Erin Lady Byrne (firstname.lastname@example.org) or find her on Twitter @ErinLadyByrne where she’s losing her damn mind over “Orange Is the New Black.”