In the early days of modern feminism, when women were wimmin (or womyn), girls were grrrls, and men were the enemy, Ida Muret joined seven other communal lesbians on a collective farm in central Vermont. They called their group Blue Corn. Their goals were many, but boiled down to living self-sufficiently off the land and away from patriarchal oppression of any kind—social, religious, or political. They succeeded for ten years, until tragedy came to break the group up for good.
Seven years later, Ida is working as a ranch hand and stone builder when 19-year-old Viv Lovejoy—a victim of sexual harassment at her college—needs a safe house for a while. Ida, a loner by choice, unhappily agrees to take her in. But it turns out that Viv is also writing a paper about women’s collectives in general and about Blue Corn in particular. And Viv whines and harangues Ida until Ida agrees to tell the younger woman her story. And what a story it is.
“We were all into being lavender Amazon wimmen with labryses between our bare breasts” Ida tells Viv in a voice that is almost post-apocalyptic in its regret and sadness. And “You must understand, we didn’t have TV spoiling our visions!” And in Ida’s brilliant point of view, author Béguin segues into the saga of Kite, Spence, Rune, Kristy, and the others as they farm their land and try to sculpt, paint, write, and love in their spare time. We get to know them all intimately. On one level it is Ida’s chance to unburden herself of many of her secrets; on another it is the chance to introduce feminist history and philosophy to the new generation of lesbians that Viv represents.
Torrid Zone has many meanings in this book. It is, for instance, the name of Ida’s wood stove, which she salvaged from Blue Corn. It can mean great sex or a hot day in the fields. It is the term one of the Blue Corn members gave to the collective because they were “hot shit” because they had created a utopia. But most of all, I think it represents Ida’s memories of that ten years with her friends—a busy, creative, and sometimes disruptive time that she has held inside her for too long. Viv is a breath of relief, she brings new excitement to Ida’s life, not only in her research, but in her own adventure, which comes to an exciting head at the conclusion of the book.
But whatever meaning you take from the title, The Torrid Zone is one of the most interesting, well-written, and important books in both the mystery and utopian genres. Ida’s voice is unique in the literature, her story inspiring and enjoyable. Give it as close to a 5 as you can without going over. It is a book that should be in anyone’s Top 20 list. It is certainly in mine.
For more than 175 other Lesbian Mystery reviews by Megan Casey, see her website at http://sites.google.com/site/theartofthelesbianmysterynovel/ or join her Goodreads Lesbian Mystery group at http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/116660-lesbian-mysteries