Julie Thompson reviews A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout

“I expect our letters to be someday public property, and, though I write with little self-consciousness about being overheard at some future date, talking intermittently to you and to myself, it seems to me what has concerned us is richly human and significantly focused on the concerns of our time and our tribe.” – Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, August 2, 1989 (Intro, xiii)

Some of the most powerful love stories occur between friends. I have always longed for a bosom buddy, someone who would stand by my side fending off the zombie apocalypse and navigating ethical dilemmas. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout edited by Marilyn R. Schuster, presents fourteen years (1981-1995) of correspondence between Jane Rule to Rick Bébout, two such friends. Margaret Atwood, a longtime friend of Jane and her partner, Helen Sonthoff, penned the foreword and is mentioned with affection in the letters.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) was an author and social commentator, a tidy summation of the innumerable roles and contributions she made to the Arts and LGBT+ community. Among her novels, she is perhaps best known for her 1964 romance, The Desert of the Heart (later produced as the 1985 film, Desert Hearts). Rule emigrated with Sonthoff from the United States in the 1950s and made their home in Galiano, British Columbia.

Rick Bébout (1950-2009) wrote prolifically for The Body Politic (TBP) (a Toronto-based publication written for LGBT+ readers, on social issues and culture) and contributed to other publications, as well; tirelessly advocated for the rights and respect of queer folks. He assembled through AIDS education materials for the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and the Hassle Free Clinic, among others. A fellow American expatriate, Bébout moved to Canada during the Vietnam War and later gained Canadian citizenship.

Rule’s and Bébout’s relationship began as that of writer and editor, when she submitted articles and pieces for her column, “So’s Your Grandmother”, to TBP. As managing editor, Bébout lived and breathed the magazine; the ebb and flow of his life was dictated by the publication cycle. He juggled multiple hats and personalities at TBP. Over the years, a deep friendship developed. Topics they discussed run the gamut, including racism, same-sex marriage, violence against women, freedom of expression, and the effect of fantasy on behavior.

Rule and Bébout weathered the heartbreaks of losing friends to AIDS, the frustration in fighting for equal dissemination of health information and access to health care, career changes, and more. They offered strength, solace, and safe space. More than once, Rule and Sonthoff bought Bébout round-trip plane tickets to Galiano Island, where he could relax at their home and elsewhere on the West Coast of Canada. Subtle clues about the evolution of their relationship manifests in subtle ways, such as how they sign-off their letters. The transition of Rick’s sign-offs from the semi-formal “sincerely” (1981) to the more companionable “love” (1985), for example, shows a shift of sentiment.

It’s not only the sweeping scope of events and issues, but the more mundane, everyday pleasures of life, that draw me into their story: Helen and Jane reading aloud to each other at night; swimming at a community pool; and Rick meeting and making friends at gay bars in Toronto. Between the two writers, they show the joys and challenges of rural and city lives.

“We die bravely and well, so many of us, giving all the way to the end – and those of us left mourning hold to that and cherish it and grow from it. But dammit, the end is too soon, and children born today will never know things they might have known if the end were not so soon for so many of us. That’s my rage, that’s what my grief is for: what’s lost.” —Rick Bébout, 1988 (Introduction, xxv).

Rule and Bébout were cognizant of the potential posterity of their letters, given their high visibility within the Arts and LGBT+ community. When Schuster approached them with her idea of publishing the letters, they not only approved, but facilitated access to materials in various formats. Headnotes and endnotes for each chapter (how I refer to sections encompassing a calendar year) enrich the two friends’ discussions. A “Dramatis Personae” section details persons of note found in the letters. It is also worth noting the immensity of Schuster’s project. Her skilled editing chiseled 2,700 pages of correspondence into a coherent and engaging volume representing twenty-five percent of the original total.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to “watch” their friendship grow. I highly recommend A Queer Love Story for folks interested in LGBT+ history and fans of Jane rule, in particular. If you want to learn more about Jane Rule and view her through the autobiographical lens, check out her posthumously published memoir, Taking My Life  (2011), reviewed last year by Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. You can learn more about Rick Bébout via his website, http://www.rbebout.com/. A Queer Love Story: The Letters of Jane Rule and Rick Bébout is available for purchase on May 1, 2017.

Page numbers refer to the uncorrected proof received from the University of British Columbia Press and are subject to change at time of publication.

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

Anna M. reviews Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule


I became aware of the movie Desert Hearts (1985) when I (like the protagonist of the film It’s in the Water) was scouring my local video stores for movies with lesbian content. It was the mid- to late-90s, and there were still stores with actual videos in them. I have watched Desert Hearts–and Go Fish, and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love–many times since then, having procured my own VHS copies in order to avoid having to make eye contact with any video clerks in Salt Lake City. But for some reason my search for lesbian content never lead me to Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart (1964) the book on which the movie was based. When I got the opportunity to read it via the Lesbrary, I also re-watched the movie (just as Mary did for her recent episode of Queer Books Please–I swear, I was working on reading the book before then!) for the purpose of comparison.

The general plot of both the book and the movie are the same–in the middle part of the 20th century, a college professor moves to Reno in order to procure a divorce. While staying at a boarding house set up for divorcing women, she meets a young and vibrant artist who also works in a casino. They fall in love, disrupting the professor’s vision of herself and her future, but at the end it seems like things just might work out for them.

Rule herself co-wrote the movie, which is a lot less . . . cerebral than the book, which concerns itself with questions of morality and other philosophical ideas. There is also a great deal more musing on casinos, especially Ann’s job and how it informs her artwork. Ann and Evelyn (Kay and Vivian in the movie) often came across to me as creatures of great, almost impenetrable complexity. Perhaps it was because I’m unaccustomed to reading works that require my absolute concentration, but I found the book a bit difficult to parse at times, although the prose was lovely. It made me miss the desert, which was a frequent background to my childhood in Utah. Rule’s way of describing it was utterly clear and evocative.

I’m glad I read the book, and would be interested to read more by Rule. If nothing else, it was a good exercise in comparing movies to the books from whence they came–in this case, I can see Rule’s hand in both, and I noticed certain things while experiencing each medium. For example, in the book Ann’s family is much kinder about her involvement with the outsider Evelyn, wanting primarily for her to be happy. The Frances of the movie is strangely in love with her adopted daughter, and that emotional entanglement is very painful to watch play out. My advice is to experience both–the movie for its great visuals and almost wry humor and the book for that rich internal life of both protagonists. The words “lesbian classic” definitely apply here.

Edited to add:

Apparently a Desert Hearts sequel is in the works!

Anna M. tweeted “Now that @booksnyarn has seen Desert Hearts, she wants to know what happens next. Any fic out there? pic.twitter.com/OoMvlT5geb”

and Donna Deitch (@DesertHearts), director of Desert Hearts, replied “@helgagrace @booksNyarn Not sure about any fan fiction, but if you can stand the wait, a sequel is in the works!”

Hannah reviews Taking My Life by Jane Rule

Taking My Life is Jane Rule’s autobiography, yet it was only published posthumously in October 2011.  And it might never have been published, had it not been found by chance by Linda M. Morra, a Canadian academic, in an archive box at the University of British Columbia a year after Rule’s death. Since both a manuscript and a typescript existed, Morra concluded that Taking My Life was intended for publication and proceeded to edit what she had found.

Jane Rule (1931-2007) is probably one of the most significant lesbian writers of the twentieth century and one for whom I have always had a special fondness. In fact her groundbreaking novel Desert of the Heart (1964) is the first lesbian book I read in the early 1980s when I was trying to work out who I was. I fell in love with it and have read it again several times over the years, but I knew next to nothing about Rule as a person, and even less about the child and teenager she had been.

Taking My Life is about growing up in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s–the book covers Rule’s first 21 years of her life–in an impoverished middle-class household, sandwiched between a wild brother and a much younger sister. Her father was a salesman who was often away for work, and thus the children were mainly brought up by their stay-at-home mother, with formidable grandparents in the background. Rule relates family life in detail and she describes the numerous moves in hope of better prospects and how insecure they made her feel.

Taking My Life is about meeting a string of women who were able to see through the clumsy defiant child and adolescent and encouraged her to mature and develop into the honest and strong woman she finally became by believing in her abilities and strengths–Dr. Elizabeth Pope, her English professor at Mills College being the most notable of her mentors.

But Taking My Life is mostly about Rule growing up queer at a time when such things were not mentioned, and gradually coming to the realisation that she “had no taste for men, except as friends”. It is about falling in love with her very married art teacher, Ann Smith, and being in love with her for years. The relationship between young Jane and her older friend is portrayed with frankness: Ann Smith was a complex woman who pressed Rule toward experimenting with men while lending her The Well of Loneliness, approving of same-sex relationships and having a brief fling with her.

‘It wasn’t the first time she’d kissed me on the mouth, but it was the first time I felt the ache in my gut turn to fire. ‘You have to understand,’ she said, holding my face in her hands. ‘We can’t make love. You have to make love first with a man, adjust to that, or you’ll be a lesbian.’

The end of the memoir is devoted to three trips Rule made to England while at Mills.  She first went to Europe to attend a course on Shakespeare in Stratford where she met Roussel Sargeant (whom she first saw on a train and) to whom she felt attracted instantly. The attraction was reciprocal, despite the ten year difference, and a relationship developed. When Rule went back home, they kept in touch. The following summer she crossed the Atlantic to be reunited with Roussel and visit Europe. Although the trip was not as satisfactory as Rule had hoped, she still planned to spend a year in London where she could live with her English lover. The plan materialised and thanks to Rule’s family she was able to finance the year and learn to “live with the baggage of (her) life, its rhythms of failure and rebirth”.

I was expecting to enjoy Taking My Life and was not disappointed. It is an engaging memoir which portrays a detailed side of Jane Rule we do not necessarily perceive in her novels and essays. It is an absorbing and fascinating read and will hopefully rekindle interest in her writings.

Lesbrary Sneak Peek: Jane Rule

I’m definitely behind in showing off my new les/etc books! Oh well, here are the stack of Jane Rule books I’ve acquired. I think I’ll address these all at once, because I’m excited for them as a whole more than as individual books.

Jane Rule is legendary in lesbian fiction. She wrote Desert of the Heart (still on my TBR shelves!), the classic lesbian book that was made into a movie. She was also Canadian–from BC, in particular–so that’s extra awesome in my opinion. She was an activist for free speech and gay rights. I think of her work as something I need to read as part of being a well-read lesbian.

Have you read any of Jane Rule’s books? What did you think of them?