Set in rural Nevada in the mid-1800s in a town that reminded me of childhood marathons of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman – where every townsperson is a character worth knowing and a lot of the population are simply, unequivocally good or evil when it comes to the protagonist and the issue of the week – The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap by Paulette Mahurin is the story of a woman affected by news of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for homesexuality. The Wilde case has little to do with the plot other than providing an entry point into Mildred’s story and some nice chapter headings that I hope the Wilde estate is receiving proper credit for.
Mildred has been “persecuted” all her life – for her looks, her refusal to participate in traditional feminine activities (consisting of mostly gossip – the novel, despite being about women and featuring a lesbian relationship actually has a spiteful anti-woman tone). She is known for philanthropy, but the angry ranting of one particular woman (who has one of the most bizarre and thinly-constructed motives I’ve ever come across) has soured the entire town on Mildred, making her a case for ridicule at best and spiteful rumors at worst. Mildred is in a long-term relationship with her cousin Edra. The two have been inseperable since childhood and the relationship was cemented after Edra’s traumatizing rape – leaving the two in eternal hiding from society, leaving Edra childlike and caught in a cycle of reliving the rape, leaving them even more separated from the town.
The news of Wilde’s imprisonment urges Mildred to take action against any rumors which might point the ruthless townspeople to her homosexuality. She concocts a plan that involves a recent widower and – of course – the plan backfires to tremendous effect.
Is this a story that should be told? Absolutely. However, where Mahurin states in the introduction that much of the novel was prepared as part of a creative writing workshop, the story suddenly seems familiar. How many times did we sit, our pens poised as awkward and lifeless prose were discussed, the teacher urging once again that the fledgling author Show and Not Tell.
No author wants to hear those words applied to their work. Even fewer, perhaps, actually take that criticism and give their poem, short story, or historical novel the working over it really needs.
As the characters navigate this plan and the rumor-laden Red River Pass, they pass the time by spouting off historical and literary facts like living Wikipedia entries (it seems like a good heads up that if the protagonist becomes bored with hearing the myriad minutiae then the audience is surely bored as well!). Chapters often start en media res, the author soon backpedals, explaining what and why just happened – encapsulating anywhere from hours to years of detailed and potentially interesting history with a few haphazard paragraphs. I apologize o the author if her writing group (which she thanks in the introduction) did not point out these issues – though a publisher would certainly have.
If Mildred Dunlap was told by another author with a less needlessly convoluted style, it might stand the chance of being a novel I could recommend. As it stands, Dunlap is an embarrassing addition to the genre of historical lesbian fiction.
[This book has also been reviewed by Lena]