The Labrys Reunion by Terry Wolverton

Publisher:    Spinsters Ink
Year:    2009

A Very Disturbing Reunion

I just finished reading this novel that really showcases the lesbian/feminist/queer generational divide — 70s vs. 90s mostly. It’s hard to review because it is a hard book. It’s not hard to read — the grammar and the verbiage are very accessible. The emotions of the characters are very hard, very angry, very at-cross purposes much of the time. The central event around which all these women have come together is the murder of a young female art student, Emma, the bisexual daughter of Dana Firestein, one of the women of a 70s organization, Labrys. The primary point of view — though it goes through many of the women’s point of view — is Gwen Kubacky, the art student’s mentor (just prior to her death).

The conflict in this story is almost purely between the two generations – though there are still some intragenerational conflicts between the older women who all had different ideas what Labrys was and could do, or grow into, as a feminist organization of the 1970s. I was born just as the 70s were beginning, so I’m right smack between the two generations being depicted, which certainly made this book more an observation, than me reliving some aspect of my own history. There were a few characters who clearly were brought in because of their representation of different aspects of the 1970s feminists and queer community, but who themselves didn’t do much more than fill out the room of mourners – Elena Martinez, the powerful political broker, for example. But it is all to paint the various differences between the generations of women.

The older butch Lee, who has a past with Gwen, and the younger girl Kendra created the clearest contrast because Lee was so trying to get into the younger girl’s pants so badly they constantly were in scenes together. Kendra with her morphable sexual roles, from aggressor to kitten and back again with lightning speed, versus Lee with her comfort in the more direct butch-femme dynamics. I did find it interesting that beyond the Labrys reunion/post-funeral “reception” in the loft, we don’t really see or hear from the murdered girl’s mother Dana, who was the once all-powerful leader and in many ways still the activist model each measured herself against all these years later. But she makes a once out of the blue statement which seems to coalesce the women’s thoughts on what really has changed. Themselves.

The strains in JJ and Gwen’s relationship, not only as the past comes back into their lives, but as Gwen’s alcoholism struggles anew, give yet another subplot of tensions. Then Gwen’s AA mentor turns out to be the cop involved in investigating Emma’s murder, creating a tangle of conflicts of interest as some of the younger members of the group take the older women’s nostalgia as a present day call to action against Emma’s killer. Ayisha, who was Emma’s roommate, and longtime friend, is given only cursory sketch as she grapples with her grief over Emma’s death.

However, Gwen clearly is meant to be the protagonist. While, as I said, we do spend time in many of the women’s heads, it is in Gwen’s head when we really see the most change taking place – for me this is the mark of the protagonist, the person most affected, most altered by or driven, by events. It was an interesting choice. It was clearly the author’s choice to excise the story from its heavy grief angle to instead focus on the generational differences that fueled the interpersonal conflicts in the aftermath of violence when feeling threatened is a natural excuse for anger.

I could only absorb The Labrys Reunion in a couple chapter doses at a time. I’m glad I did though. It really did a good job telling the central story of women responding to a death among their own – whether distantly or intimately connected to that person. If not everyone grows as a result of the encounter, that may be less the author’s fault and simply demonstrate the faults of the characters.

The details of the New York City scenes were so real I could almost smell and feel the places around me. But it was a real kick in the teeth as I was faced with character after character facing how hard it is to communicate effectively between groups of people who have different experiences. I felt “accused” for this breakdown, and then almost commanded, certainly compelled, to do something to fix it. And I’m not even really represented by a character in the book. For someone who might see herself in one of the characters it’s gonna be a real tough book to digest.

But an extremely rewarding one. Reunions are about going back and seeing where you’ve come from. In The Labrys Reunion, Terry Wolverton points out the many miles we still have to go, even to connect within and among ourselves.

Review by Lara Zielinsky
© January 2010

laraz(at)lzfiction.net of "Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women's Fiction"

Lilac Mines by Cheryl Klein

Paperback, 351 pgs
Manic D Press, 2009

(Warning: spoilers within)Lilac Mines was born a boomtown in the mining period of the late 1800s. Its boon was a silver mine. Lilac Ambrose was a miner’s daughter, who vanished into the mine in 1899. The novel “Lilac Mines”, Cheryl Klein’s first novel, plays out against the backdrop of uncovering what happened to young Miss Ambrose by two different generations of women, who happen to be aunt and niece.

In 2002, Felix, an androgynous mostly comfortable gay young woman, is out partying one night with her friends when she is attacked on her way to her car — in mostly gay-safe

Los Angeles. This throws her life and her outlook into a tailspin. She resists then accepts her mother’s suggestion to visit her aunt out of town until she can get it back together. Something of a city versus country life clash is certainly
bound to ensue as she drives off in her lavender Beetle for rural Lilac Mines.
Felix’s maternal aunt is Anna Lisa Hill. Her history in Lilac Mines is both simpler and rougher than Felix can understand, so they each give the other a wide berth for much of the book. In 1967 Anna Lisa went looking for

San Francisco, and others like her — The Girls of 3-B, inspired by one of her lesbian pulp novels. The bus stops in Lilac Mines. She encounters the mystery of Lilac Ambrose, and a nascent but growing community of gay women living in an old church as a commune. This was the beginning of feminism, the exploration of female power, and the core of the butch-femme period, where the dichotomy was strictly adhered to among women who loved women. Anna Lisa becomes “Al” and establishes a life, working in the local wood mill, and loving Meg, one of the other women in the group. Though all is not perfect, it’s home, until “Al” must become Anna Lisa once again and return to her family when her father falls ill. She doesn’t return for years, marrying instead to her parents’ wishes, avoiding children, and living falsely until news of Meg’s suicide wakes her to return to Lilac Mines, now literally becoming a ghost town. The mill is closed up, everyone is leaving, and in  a very short time, Anna Lisa is the only soul for miles. She even has to go to neighboring Beedleborough for her mail when mail service stops, where she gets a job in a small diner. That gives her the experience though to open her own roadside baked good stand and eventually she becomes a cornerstone of Lilac Mines’ rebirth when she opens a small bakery near the town’s center.The reader experiences the revelations of both Felix and Anna Lisa’s life in the present tense. The immediacy of the approach draws the reader in deeply and quickly. The detail is rich and real. The narrative voices are authentic for both Felix and Anna Lisa. And as Felix and Anna Lisa, separately in their own eras, uncover more and more about Lilac Ambrose’s short life that inspired a town, they become inspired to recreate their own lives with purpose and meaning unique to them. Felix is at first appalled that Anna Lisa doesn’t seem to be out. When they finally come together and their stories merge, when Anna Lisa actually relates her story — and the parts of Lilac Mines’ history that she only heard second hand while she was married and away — the reader gets the sense that the clash is finally transforming to a mesh instead. The generational gap is closing, bit by bit.

The long stretch of story Anna Lisa learned second hand — the experiences of Meg and the others in the commune while she was away and married — is told in present tense as well as from Meg’s point of view. This was jarring after it being pretty firmly established for more than half the book that the narrative voice was being passed back and forth between only Felix and Anna Lisa. It’s set off as the beginning of “Part II” in the novel space, but it still felt as though the information could have been delivered in another way. Because it was clearly an experience of the generation that needed to be conveyed to give Anna Lisa’s choices context, it was needed in the story. Just perhaps it could have been presented shorter or via letters Meg never sent and left in her home, or via conversations with the last lesbian couple before they leave town.

The book solidly comes together — just as Felix and Anna Lisa do — in the final chapters. And Felix’s final “here’s what I think happened” in the story of Lilac Ambrose and Calla Hogane, daughter of the local newspaper family, fills the characters and the reader with a sense of accomplishment. Not only has a more than one hundred year old mystery been resolved, but a comfort with their own lives and choices, and each other, has been achieved.

Such is the magic of Lilac Mines, a place where one can be lost, only to be found.

~ Reviewed by

Lara Zielinsky, December 2009
Host of “
Readings in Lesbian & Bisexual Women’s Fiction”