Julie Thompson reviews Freiya’s Stand by Anastasia Vitsky

Freiya’s Stand gives room for queer women to embrace their religious faith, kinky desires, and career aspirations, as well as room for dreaming. Freiya and Sabrina live strictly compartmentalized lives as teachers at St. Agatha of Sicily, a private Catholic school for primary and secondary students, lest anyone find out that they’re dating. Both women grew up in Catholic families and value their faith, even though this sets them at odds with school policy and family. The couple alternates commute routes, maintains a professional facade, and keeps spanking behind closed doors. They also face staff lay-offs, dwindling funds, large classroom sizes, and reduced support for teachers. When the principal mandates all teachers sign a “Covenant of Faith” condemning “perverted sexuality” and other “immoral or unethical behavior”, Sabrina and Freiya butt heads. Sabrina wants to sign the form, but Freiya resists. Most of the faculty eventually go along with it in order to keep their jobs. When Freiya fails to play ball with the new requirements, her life falls under the principal’s close scrutiny.

The novella alternates between past and present, illuminating pivotal moments in the women’s lives that color their relationship, family interactions, and careers. Quick pacing allows Vitsky to move between key events and establish character personalities. Sabrina is an exemplary high school English teacher with exacting standards, both for her students and for her choice of ketchup. Freiya, a new kindergarten teacher, has a soft heart for her students and a penchant for culinary confections. Sabrina’s Gran is the most vibrant and essential secondary character. A full-length novel treatment would give room for fleshing out events mentioned only in passing and for less nuanced characters that seem to exist primarily as plot drivers. Certain elements of the conclusion (the final two to three pages, in particular) feel rushed. It works well, for the most part, as a novella. Overall, Freiya’s Stand is a thoughtful and engaging tale.

Freiya and Sabrina have a consensual kink arrangement. This drives their dynamic at home, as well as how they behave in the wider world. One of my favorite moments involves Shakespeare and spanking. I’ll let that sit with you until you read it for yourself! While Sabrina assumes the dominant role, Freiya is vocal in what is and is not okay. Readers first encounter this aspect of their relationship after they disagree over the “morality” contract at school. Some of the interplay between emotional and physical exchanges becomes muddled as their stress increases. It does not cross over into domestic abuse. However, some readers may find certain passages distressing.

Catholicism also plays an integral part in how the characters view themselves, deal with challenges, and guide their lives. Both women value their faith, but don’t agree on how it intersects with their sexuality and public life. This provides much of the friction between them throughout the story. This is the second story that I’ve read in which the reconciliation of faith and queerness are central themes. The other story (which I definitely recommend) is Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown.

LGBT+ folks can still lose their jobs in many states or have limited protections based on sexuality and gender identity. Visit the Human Rights Commission at HRC.org for more information. It is heartening to see local religious congregations marching in support at Pride and to see rainbow flags near the front doors of churches, welcoming everyone.

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur (jthompsonian.wordpress.com)

Audrey reviews Teaching the Cat to Sit by Michelle Theall

teachingthecat

Great title, right? It’s also literal. Poor Mittens. Michelle Theall’s memoir isn’t organized linearly, but intersperses chapters from childhood with chapters from adulthood. And as a child, she really did teach the family cat to sit. She writes poignantly of the deep loneliness that caused her to try to make the cat into something it was not, and manages somehow not to beat you over the head with maternal parallels.

Her establishing shot gives you this: a partner and a son, and iPhone contact with grandparents. Good! Also, the grandparents are due to arrive soon for the son’s baptism, which has been cancelled. Due to the priest’s sudden reconsideration of baptizing the child of gay parents. Also, the grandparents don’t know this. (Note: I use the word “gay” instead of “lesbian” because that’s what Theall uses, and she expresses dislike of the label “lesbian.”)

And then you get a snapshot of the beginning. Michelle was supposed to be Matthew; she notes that this was only the beginning of disappointing her parents. You see her as a young child in the Texas Bible Belt, learning that things she liked were inappropriate, and she herself, always, was inappropriate. Not concerned enough with femininity. Not modest. Always unacceptable and wrong. And then she was scarred by an experience that reinforced this self-perception. When she did finally begin to find herself, it was through sports, and her mother explained that not only do sports have no real value for girls in the real world, but that Theall’s ovaries would likely fall out (spoiler: they didn’t). And the rampant homophobia was so ingrained that homophobia wasn’t even a concept or a word. It was just life. Homosexuality was not a thing; it was wrong, it didn’t exist, it went against the natural order, it was against God.

Although I didn’t read this as a Christian memoir–but you could–Theall’s Catholicism, and her relationship with God, is one of the most important strands woven throughout the book. As she is fighting to have her son’s baptism rescheduled, Theall considers one of the focal points of the priest’s concern: “How do you reconcile your homosexual lifestyle with your Christian beliefs?” At that point, she thinks, she’s spent 42 years resolving that question. By then, her faith is a source of strength, not angst. (Faith. Not clergy. Faith.) Her tale of getting to that place of acceptance is powerful and filled with pain, uncertainty, lots of guilt, and some big epiphanic moments.

The religious aspect is tied in to a larger question of general identity. And this is all woven in with a third piece: Theall’s relationship with her (birth) family–particularly her mother. (In fact, separating these out makes for artificial distinctions, but is done for the sake of clarifying what you might want to keep an eye out for.) The reading group guide (included in the new paperback edition) says, “In order to be a good mother, Michelle begins to realize that she may have to be a bad daughter.” While reading this book, you will probably never be convinced that Theall feels she has any chance of being regarded as a good daughter. You will probably wonder if, now that this book has been published, Theall’s mother is still talking to her. You may cheer inwardly at the choice to publish, knowing full well what the consequences might be.

Trigger warning for sexual assault.