Julie Thompson reviews A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

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“There is so much we don’t know, can’t know, in doing historical research. Emma Donoghue writes, in the afterword of her collection Astray, ‘when you work in the hybrid form of historical fiction, there will be Seven-League-Boot moments: crucial facts joyfully uncovered in dusty archives and online databases, as well as great leaps of insight and imagination. But you will also be haunted by a looming absence: the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost, that can never be recovered.’” (Postscript)

A Thin Bright Line, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe, tells the story of a life lived fully, yet not quite openly. Bledsoe starts from the end of her namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe’s, life and proceeds to build on the available fragments. The two women’s lives follow amazingly similar career paths and sexual orientation, despite decades and miles apart. Bledsoe was nine years old when her aunt died in an apartment fire in 1966. As a result, she has few clear memories of her aunt, a vague, albeit benevolent, figure who made periodic visits and sent gifts. The woman was a benign mystery to her family. In an era without social media and portable devices tracking every move, it was much easier to leave without a trace, or else leave behind few clues about who you were.

A detailed entry for Lucybelle, found by chance in The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, as well as an obituary in the Journal of Glaciology, sparked years of research leading to this novel. Bledsoe scavenged her father’s memories of his sister. Among them, her aunt’s aspirations to write a novel; her penchant for organizing school-wide jokes and flash mob-type performances; and reciting humorous poetry. As for the adult Lucybelle became, there is far less information available. A handful of primary documents, such as the reports left behind following the fatal apartment fire, and interviews with the remaining people who knew her aunt in some capacity, were all that remained of a seemingly rich and vibrant life.

Lucybelle Bledsoe was born in 1923 to a devout Christian household in Pocahontas, Arkansas. Her mother was a housewife and her father had a dual career as a farmer and county judge. As a child, Lucybelle displayed a keen intellect, as evidenced by her voracious reading habits and ability to pass the Arkansas bar without having had attended law school. The novel spans a decade and opens on New York City, 1956, about ten years after she left her hometown. The former country girl had by this time built a successful career for herself at the Geological Society of America as an Assistant Editor. She shares an apartment with her longtime girlfriend, Phyllis, and their dachshund, L’Forte. She also enjoys the city’s nightlife with a core group of friends. Everything seems good enough, even if it involves a bit of compromise. However, her life is upended when her relationship shatters and a sudden job offer is pushed at her by Henri Bader, a European ice scientist working for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The novel flows from New York to Chicago to Vermont. Along the way, Lucybelle experiences overt and vague threats from her employer and sources unknown. She learns how to compartmentalize her life, balancing her employer’s demands that she refrain from dating women with a challenging career. The novel is full of coded terrain: her workplaces at Snow Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment (SIPRE) and Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), and her private and family lives. Through her relationships and career, Lucybelle makes sense of the path she wants her life to take. Despite having her life extinguished just as she seems to fully realize it, the novel is an incredible tribute.

Bledsoe paints a sensitive, nuanced portrait of her aunt, displaying an understanding of the period’s public, private, and personal politics, and social mores. Some of the characters are works of fiction, such as Lucybelle’s Chicago girlfriend Stella, her cluster of friends in New York City, and coworkers at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire. However, the many lives that factor into this story all reflect some aspect of life during the Cold War, in the period covering 1956-1966. Each of the women featured react differently to societal pressures and offer a sort of option for how Lucybelle might conduct her own life. A Thin Bright Line is an engaging and immersive story, featuring strong, intelligent women.

Mid-century queer history is fascinating and complex. Most of the literature and sources mentioned in the novel can be borrowed via public libraries in the United States or purchased online. I acquired the first two volumes of collected issues of The Ladder via my local public library’s interlibrary loan system. I recommend supplementing your reading with the titles listed below.

  1. Coming Out Under Fire by Allan Bérubé

  2. A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski

  3. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman

You can read more of Julie’s reviews on her blog, Omnivore Bibliosaur.

Danika reviews The Big Bang Symphony by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

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This was the third book I read in December that Queer Books Please categorized as part of the “Lesbians In Cold Places” genre, and it definitely fits there! The Big Bang Symphony is set in Antarctica, and the incredibly cold climate can be felt on every page. Only one of the three protagonists is a lesbian, though. All three women have travelled to work in Antarctica to push themselves to solve problems in their lives, to answer questions about themselves. Mikala (the queer character) is still grieving her partner, who died a year ago, and whom she was with since childhood. Rosie, who seems like the central character, maybe because we start the story with her, is adrift. She left home as a teenager and has been searching for it ever since, leading her to this furthest corner of the globe yet again. And finally, Alice, meanwhile, has come to Antarctica to finally leave home, to escape an overbearing mother and to perhaps find a new relationship.

This book is a slow build. The plot does not race along. Instead, the novel concentrates more on character development, and the way these three women’s lives intersect. The setting is fascinating, because it is extreme. It really creates this great parallel to these characters trying to “find themselves”, because in this climate you can literally die from standing still too long. And the characters and their arcs are all compelling. I loved Rosie’s brash, bold personality, though I found her romantic life in the book to be frustrating (but that was the point). Mikala and Alice take a little while to find their voices, because they are more subtle than Rosie. Mikala is juggling a lot of different things in her life, but one of them is her failure to find creative release. She is a composer, and she spends most of the book trying to break through the barriers to her creativity. Alice is a scientist, and she examined everything with exacting, unbiased logic, until she doesn’t. I feel like I should have found her romantic arc annoying, because it follows some tropes that I have hated in other stories, but I actually really enjoyed it. I thought it worked well for her.

Mostly, it’s the ending that really made this book for me. As I’ve said, it’s a slow build. I found most of the book a little difficult to get through, because it wasn’t a pageturner, it wasn’t making me desperate to know what happens next. But that unfolding of character development, the detailing of the different relationships all the characters end up having with each other, the subtle weaving in of their backstories, it all paid off. By the end of the book, I really felt for these characters. I was rooting for them. I actually was grinning to myself and laughed out loud near the end, because I was happy to see these characters get the resolutions they so desperately needed in their lives. If you’re up for a atmospheric, character-based story, I would definitely recommend The Big Bang Symphony. The writing is skillful and the characters are so believable. Curl up in a chair with a warm drink and settle in for a subtle, but satisfying, read.