Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell,
by William Klaber
St Martin’s Press
ISBN 978-1-250-06187-4, 2014, $25.99 hc (US)
In 2000, William Klaber, a writer in Basket Creek, New York, was asked by a local historian to write the story of a woman from that area who had been well-known, even scandalous, in the 19th century. According to the history buff, the home Klaber and his wife owned was said to be haunted by the notorious Lucy Ann Lobdell.
Intrigued, Klaber examined the notes and newspaper clippings handed over to him, and learned about Lucy Lobdell. Born in upstate New York to parents of modest means, she had been known as “the Female Hunter of Delaware County” for her ability to hunt deer. In 1912, her obituary in the New York Times headlined: “Death of a Modern Diana: Dressed in men’s clothing, she wins a girl’s love.”
Reading on, Klaber learned that Lucy Lobdell had married, but that in 1855, deserted by her husband, George Slater, she’d returned to her parents with her young daughter. Earning opportunities for women were scarce, so, leaving her child with her parents, Lucy left in 1855 to look for work in the coal mining town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Once there, she presented herself as a man, Joseph Isaiah Lobdell.
Gaps in the historical record of Lucy led William Klaber to decide to write a novel about her, rather than a biography. Guest-blogging about taking on this challenge, he wrote (on www.bilerico.com,July 23, 2013): “I am a man. I am hetero. I live in the 21st century. Could I be any more unqualified? [to write about Lucy/Joseph]” Despite the gulf between him and his subject, Klaber has written a sensitive novel which shows the gradual development of Lobdell’s male identity. In the novel, Klaber avoids 21st century gender labels, because in the 19th century there was no vocabulary to describe same sex couples, or people whose birth gender and internal sense of gender didn’t match up.
The novel opens with Lucy Ann Lobdell on the train from Long Eddy, New York, to Honesdale, PA, worried that the conductor may see through her male disguise and throw her off the train. In flashbacks we learn of her struggles to support herself and her child. Deer hunting and chores contributed to her parents’ household, but when a repulsive local widower made moves on her, she decided to seek her fortune elsewhere.
In Honesdale, “Joseph Isaiah” Lobdell plays the violin for pay at a pub in the evenings, starts a dancing school, and learns to fit into male society. Though “unpractised at the banter,” she says she eventually “came to share their good spirits, more so after I discovered that a glass of beer made it all go a little easier… What didn’t become funny were the cruel comments about the boatmen’s cooks, or wenches, as they called them… I got good at acting amused when I wasn’t… I became, soon enough, everyone’s little brother.”
Lobdell joins the literary society which debates the big issue of the era, slavery. Though enjoying a social life for the first time, Lobdell sees that the possibility of bringing little Helen to Honesdale is unrealistic: “I had invented a me who was, in many ways, not her mother.”
At the dancing school, a young woman, Lydia, flirts with Lobdell. Lydia confides that she “wants the life of no woman I know, because there is nothing for us [but] a distasteful marriage [or] the hell of spinsterhood.” Instead, Lydia wants “land and horses” like her male cousin. Lobdell falls in love with her, but suspects that theirs would be an “unnatural union” of the sort some preachers have alluded to, in sermons
“Everything had changed for me,” Lobdell says. “Up was down, red was blue and some part of me had come to see myself as a man.” His love for Lydia does not fill him with torment, but, rather, is “a special, quiet place.” When Lydia proposes running away to Minnesota territory together to raise horses, Lobdell realizes that he must tell her everything.
William Klaber creates another character who is dissatisfied with the rigid gender divisions of the era. A friend of Lobdell’s from the literary society tells him that he has noticed Lobdell is “not like other men”, and wants them to have a “closer, special relationship”. Apparently Burton is gay and thinks Lobdell is too. Lobdell rejects him gently, inwardly feeling “revulsion” because he loves only Lydia.
Lobdell’s dilemma is harshly resolved when someone from back home realizes that Joseph Lobdell used to be Lucy Ann, and spreads rumours which reach Lydia’s ears. In a note she urges him to “flee the unspeakable humiliation being planned.” Her letter contains no surprise or anger; so perhaps she was more aware of Lobdell’s birth gender than she seemed to be. In any case, Lobdell gets out of Honesdale fast and heads west.
Klaber vividly depicts life in untamed Minnesota on the brink of statehood. There, Lobdell lives (as a man) in a shanty town outside St. Paul’s and works in a hotel kitchen. To make more money, he signs on as one of two guards at a land claim at Kandiyoki, in a remote part of the state. He encounters aboriginal people and finds a vast, wolf-haunted snow-covered wilderness with game to hunt. His only companions for a year are his fellow guard, Owen Carter, with whom he shares a small cabin, and an older neighbour, Noah, who lends him books. Owen apparently never discovers Lobdell’s secret, but Noah guesses, and tells Lobdell to call on him if he ever needs help.
Klaber shows the complexity of human sexuality when Owen confides his love for a prostitute in St. Paul, who has refused his offer of marriage once, but whom he hopes to win once he owns land and a house. Lobdell silently wonders if this woman who had “traded respectability for independence” would abandon her life to join Owen in a sod hut. When Owen is in the throes of nocturnal longing for this woman, Lobdell “wanted to go to him”, because of his genuine passion.
Throughout the novel, Klaber shows Lobdell’s concern for other disadvantaged people. While guarding the land claim he gives a deer to some starving aboriginal people. When a newspaper publisher has her printing press wrecked because of her abolitionist views, he contributes to a collection to help her start again. On the farm where he works, he sympathizes with the wife, who grieves for children lost to the harsh pioneer environment, and who leaves for her sister in the east when she is once again “with child”.
Although Lobdell finds contentment and joy for brief periods, his overall story is tragic. In Mannana, Minnesota, he finally establishes a farm. Then his secret is discovered and he is charged, as “Lucy Ann Slater”, with “wearing men’s clothes to falsely impersonate a man, contrary to the laws of God, man and nature, practising deceit and causing injury to certain individual parties, to the moral fabric of the community and against the peace and dignity of the State of Minnesota.”
The prosecutor wants to make a name for himself, but Lobdell’s lawyer conducts a vigorous defence. Noah and Owen, called by the prosecution to testify, claim not to have known Lobdell’s birth-gender. The case is dismissed, but Lobdell’s property is burned and he suffers a breakdown, which leads to his being sent back east.
In New York state, he lives as a hermit for many years, hunting for food, and ends up at the almshouse in Delhi, NY where he becomes handyman/gardener. There, Lobdell meets and falls in love with Marie Perry, who ran from marital problems and is being sought by her parents. She and Lobdell become lovers, run away from the almshouse, and are married by a kindly judge who does not know their history. Lobdell’s secret gets around, though, forcing them to eke out a living doing seasonal work, living in caves and huts in the bush, enjoying freedom and each other’s company, but suffering abject poverty. Eventually they are put in jail. Klaber ends his novel in 1876 when the two have a stroke of luck. Lydia reappears, now a happily married mother and women’s rights advocate, and offers them money to buy a home.
In real life, Lobdell spent only a few years with Marie in a home of their own. By 1880, he was in the almshouse again, and spent the next thirty-two years in New York state mental institutions until dying in 1912. Marie was misled by authorities into thinking he’d died earlier. Dr. P.M. Wise, who studied Lobdell in these asylums, published articles in 1883 and 1891 in which he coined the phrase “lesbian love” to define Lobdell’s relationship with Marie.
The author’s last chapter switches from fictionalization to fact to tell what happened to Lobdell. Since The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell is a novel, not a biography, Mr. Klaber is under no obligation to provide readers with a list of works consulted. Yet, because so much about Lobdell’s later years, and the fate of his daughter, is told in this non-fiction last chapter, a bibliography would have helped readers interested in reading more about Lucy/Joseph.
Klaber mentions some of the newspapers and periodicals he read, but doesn’t mention Professor Bambi L. Lobdell’s book, A Strange Sort of Being: The transgender life of Lucy Ann/Joseph Israel Lobdell. Bambi Lobdell made her unique ancestor the subject of her graduate school thesis. In her view, “transgendered” (rather than “lesbian”) is the word that best describes Lucy/Joseph. In an interview in the August 2, 2012 issue of The Advocate, she said, “If Lobdell had merely wanted a quiet life with Marie he could have worn women’s clothes, presented as a woman, and lived with Marie… No one need have known that their relationship as an intimate one.” Joseph Lobdell’s determination to dress and live openly as a man, in the face of harassment, poverty and incarceration, convinces Professor Bambi Lobdell that, deep inside, her ancestor felt like a man, and was, therefore, transgender.
William Klaber has said that he doesn’t think Lucy was transgender (see www.bilerico.com, July 23, 2013) because “when she was an active and adventurous young woman there is no indication that she felt as though she was trapped in a woman’s body.” People who responded to his remarks on the blog pointed out that many transgender people don’t realize they are transgender until they have enough information to know that it’s a possibility. They may reach this conclusion later in life. Some discover their dissatisfaction with their birth gender after they begin cross-dressing.
Despite the controversy over how to categorize Lucy/Joseph Lobdell, William Klaber deserves applause for writing so authentically in the first person, using a “woman’s” voice, and for daring to make this complicated and tragic human story into a novel. The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell is thought-provoking, and may influence readers to be broadminded and accepting of others.
For more information on Ruth Latta’s writing, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com