May 16, 2016 by kitmoss
(Little Sister’s Classics)
Two young women find unexpected love in Greene County, New York, in the early 1800s. Patience White, a genteel painter, and Sarah Dowling, who has adopted the role of her father’s son to work on the farm, realize quickly that their neighbors will never accept their partnership. They choose to leave to settle on their own land and make a life of their own on the frontier.
Originally titled A Place for Us, Isabel Miller’s sweet romance is the first book I thought of when we talked about creating a sister list to Speak Its Name. I read this book not that long after it was published in 1972. Originally self-published, it garnered the recognition of the American Library Association, winning its first award for gay fiction. A romance with a lot of class, it has also won the hearts of a couple generations at least of readers.
Patience White is a painter living with relatives in Greene County, New York, in the early 19th century. She knows she is destined to be the family’s maiden aunt, a burden. Then she meets Sarah Dowling, a woman who dresses rather like a boy having had to take that role as her father’s farmhand. Their love affair starts tentatively, shyly, but it is not long before Sarah finds herself in Patience’s bed.
Their love grows, but so does suspicion among relatives and neighbors. The women soon realize they must set out to make a life for themselves on the frontier. Sarah disguises herself as a boy, and the two head west to find a homestead and build a house — and a life for themselves where they can live and love without threat.
This is a gentle romance, growing naturally from the couple’s first hesitant longing. It’s a good story, the well worn and well loved tale of young people seeking independence and autonomy. As a lover of historical fiction, I appreciated the tale of the young women’s journey to find their place, the hardships they overcame, and the hard work and joy of making their own home. The relationship is not shallow, but instead encompasses all the care and consolation true loving can offer.
My one regret about the book was the adoption of gender roles by Patience and Sarah. Sarah is decidedly the tomboy and even has to live as a boy for the pair’s protection. Unfortunately, the role is extended into their bed where Sarah is definitely the initiator. When they find their place, Sarah becomes the farmer and Patience the farmer’s wife in terms of responsibility. I would have preferred that she and Patience could share more.
I was interested to learn that the novel has been made into a chamber opera with music by Paula M. Kimper and libretto by Wende Persons. You can find information on it here.