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Set in the 19th century, Isabel Miller’s classic lesbian novel traces the relationship between Patience White, an educated painter, and Sarah Dowling, a farmer’s daughter, whose romantic bond does not sit well with the puritanical New England community in which they live. They choose to live together and love each other freely, even though they know of no precedents for their relationship; they must trust their own instincts and see beyond the disdain of their neighbors.
Patience and Sarah is a meticulously researched historical novel, originally self-published by the author in 1969. This classic of GLBT literature garnered so much attention that the American Library Association created its first Stonewall Award specifically for it in 1971. Grammy Award-winning narrator Janis Ian and Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Jean Smart each perform as one of the characters in this dual point-of-view love story. Their narration marks the first time that this beautiful work is available in audio, and brings new life into this inspiring novel that is just as relevant today as it was decades ago.
I have to thank Aleksandr Voinov for bringing the beauty of audiobooks into my literary world. The first few attempts I made were merely okay, but I certainly wasn’t won over by any of them. Then the soothing and graceful voice of Matthew Lloyd Davies forced me to quickly change my tune. I wasn’t bored. I wasn’t sleepy. I wasn’t….uncomfortable. I was captivated, engaged, and rapt with every word. It took on a completely new form of entertainment; similar yet so unlike the visual absorption of words on paper. Eager to find something else to listen too, I scrolled through the Audible app on my phone and viola, I found my next adventure.
And adventure it was. Outlandish for me really, this book, or perhaps it was my selection of this book that was so far off the beaten path of my normal book attraction that I didn’t recognize myself.
Historical. I don’t do historical. Okay okay, I just told you how much I LOVED Skybound, but that doesn’t count. That story does not fit in any of the standard categories or boxes; it’s in a league of its own.
Lesbian love stories. It’s not that I don’t seek them out because I don’t like them- it’s simply there are so few to choose from. The very few I have read either fared little or decent marks but nothing spectacular. This fable reaches infinitely higher in terms of great love stories.
Patience and Sarah possess stunning and determined love that refuses to be denied. In a time when it was not only improper and offensive but unimaginable that two women could be romantically involved, they found it anyways.
My head is so full, I’m not certain where to begin. First it should be noted that I know I would not have enjoyed this story to the same degree if I hadn’t listened. The dual narrators were fabulous. There are five books that complete the story and both Sarah and Patience alternate the telling of the story. I preferred one voice slightly more than the other, but both did a phenomenal job.
Set in 1816 in New England the descriptions are like flipping through a history book. Religion is oppressive in this era, but not in the book. It is definitely in the background but I never found it a focal point. Feminism however, is strong and prominent throughout.
Patience is destined to be a spinster sister and aunt. A gifted painter, a sharp mind and an heir of wealth and prosperity, she has always set her own course. As much as she was permitted that is. When her Father passed away he left a very detailed will to allow her to continue with the comforts that he provided her with, without having to take a husband. Her brother Edward was to see her to a lifetime of easy living. She had a place of her own, connected to her brother’s home and assisted with his family when she cared to.
One wintry day a load of wood was delivered by an intriguing woman….dressed as a man. This is the day the stars change for Patience. Maybe she was set on the wrong course all along?
“I’m Pa’s boy; he couldn’t get a boy the regular way. Keep getting girls. So he picked me out to be boy cuz I was biggest.”
Sarah is twenty-one and defies all expected norms of society. She wears britches for heaven’s sakes! Can you imagine! *wink* Patience is mortified with the disregard and rude behavior of her sister-in-law and invites Sarah into her part of the home. Patience has suddenly found everything that she never knew she was missing. She has found Sarah, Sarah with her proud chin, strong shoulders and loving hands. The feeling is mutual because Sarah decides then and there that she wants Patience and nothing will stop her.
Out of all of Sarah’s sisters, she is closest to Rachel. Rachel is just like her and when Sarah begins her voyage into frontier land, she’s taking Rachel with her. Sarah breaks the news to Rachel that she can’t take her anymore because Sarah has found her mate. Rachel is crushed and without thought tells her Pa. Pa refuses to allow Sarah to scorn the family so, and make all her sisters unmarryable…so, he forbids it. Sarah is relentless in her attempts to reach Patience are suffers greatly. Patience is stricken with fear and cannot risk their lives for love. She refuses to go with Sarah. Sarah can’t bear to stay so she goes on alone. She has only one choice to survive, which is to become a boy. She cuts her hair and becomes Sam.
Sam is strong, in body, spirit and will. Sam has no light left, for he left it back home. Sam encounters a peddler man, a book peddler, and joins him for the summer. They have great adventures and he begins to teach Sam to read. Something happens (can’t tell you what)….and Sam can no longer stay. Sam heads back to Connecticut.
Patience missed Sarah more than she thought was possible. She is desperate for the opportunity to leave now. She quickly realized her mistake in surmising to her fears and she wants the life they dreamed of. She doesn’t want a half life anymore. However, Sarah returns changed. Her spirit is dimmed, her reckless desires controlled, and she is prepared to settle. Settle for whatever life she must life to have Patience nearby. She can no loner be foolish because Patience is now a fool in love. One of them must be sensible, right?
Patience convinces Sarah to find her wild abandon once again and they begin their voyage to New York. New York City in the early 1800’s? Wow….it truly was a sight to see. The odds are very much against them. How can they survive in a man’s world without a man?
“I began to wonder if what makes man walk so Lord-like and speak so masterfully, is having the love of woman. If that was it, Sarah and I would make Lords of each other.”
I was anxious and excited.
I was delighted and sickened.
I was blown away by the power of their love. I found many of the descriptions during their love scenes…odd. But they were all fade-to-black and easy to dismiss. If you must know, there is a happily ever after. It involves a journey up a thorny mountain to get there, but the heaven on earth they find is unlike any I’ve ever seen.
And then….to my utter surprise, it may not be entirely all fiction after all. *jaw drops*
This book was the first book awarded and I believe the reason for the Stonewall Book Award. In the early seventies it was awarded the honor and I can definitely see why.
I believe Sarah did say it best…
“you can’t tell a gift how to come.”
I challenge you to pull yourself out of your comfortable grooves in the road you’re traveling. Take a chance. Not necessarily on this, but with something unexpected and unlike you.
Be courageous and free….and you might find yourself among the clouds too.