Bett Norris’ new novel, Miss McGhee, is a modern day lesbian historical romance. The work was a runner-up in the first annual Bywater Prize for Fiction competition, an annual event which seeks to highlight and promote novels written about lesbians. It impressed the judges so much that they decided to publish it.
It’s shortly after the end of World War II and Mary McGhee has moved to Myrtlewood, a small town in Alabama. Like so many others, Mary’s looking for a new start, a new job, a place to live, somewhere nobody knows her. Of course things don’t work out so smoothly in novels, because in walks Lila Dubose and you know there’s going to be trouble!
Lila is the wife of Mary’s new employer, she reminds Mary that she can run as much as she likes but she’ll never be able to leave certain desires behind her. Certain desires is, of course, code for lesbian love. Mary is a lesbian and wants to escape her past.
Norris explains on her website that she wanted to write about “what it was like for women in that time, isolated, without the support of a larger gay community, when even heterosexual women lived under restrictions that seem impossible to accept.”
Perhaps because of her own experiences growing up in the South, she manages to blend a local sense of gentility in the language and the stifling intolerance of that particular time and place.
But on with the plot: Mary has become the manager of a neglected lumber yard and although she is returning it to profitability, her actions are unwelcome as a woman in a man’s world. Let’s not forget that this is post war Alabama, a land of racist murder, fear, bigotry and separatist Jim Crow laws. But Mary continues her life, quietly and with dignity, she loves a woman and provides jobs and financial aid for black people in her community. She’s on the cusp of things, the world is changing and the American civil rights movement is starting to brew.
Miss McGhee examines two themes, that of women trying to live meaningfully under the radar in difficult times, but also how the early civil rights movement affected white Southerners. The novel’s historical setting is the product of an impressive amount of research, Norris cites too many books to mention here, but also visited historical sites in the South to get a flavour of the times.
There are also shades of Norris’ own heritage in the book, she grew up close to the place where Harper Lee (“herself one of those single ladies I wanted to write about”), the author of the quintessential civil rights novel To Kill a Mockingbird lives. Norris understands what it might be like for a northerner, an outsider, to try and make a home in a small Southern town. As the author says: “She is set apart from the beginning by so many things, but ultimately discovers herself freed rather than limited by that difference that can never be bridged or assimilated.”
But it is not only Norris’ personal connection to the work which makes this a successful book. The author’s sensitive character studies, Mary and Lila’s story, the lack of clumsy melodrama also make Miss McGhee an accomplished novel that begs to be read