Friday, May 3, 2013

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, by William Klaber

Greenleaf Book Group, ISBN 9781608325627, June 2013

This is a fictionalized biography of a quite remarkable but little-known 19th-century figure, Lucy Ann Lobdell, a woman who lived most of her adult life as a man.

Born in 1829 in upstate New York, Lucy learned from her father to hunt and to play the violin, both unusual activities for a female at that time. She did marry, but after the marriage failed, and she had a young daughter to support, her life started to veer off in unexpected directions. Leaving her daughter with her parents, Lucy left home dressed as a man, taking the name Joseph Israel Lobdell, setting out to make enough money that she could send for her daughter and make a life for them together.

She never lived with her daughter again.

As Joseph Lobdell, she started a school of music and dance in a Pennsylvania town. While quite successful for a time, she was eventually discovered, and had to flee on very short notice.

But by this time she'd discovered she liked being a man.

There's much that's hard to understand about Lucy/Joseph's identity and life, because the nineteenth century didn't have the concepts and vocabulary to adequately describe or discuss people who did not fit easily into existing gender roles. It seems quite likely that she, or he, was a transgender man, at a time when there was no possibility of society understanding and accepting her/him as that. While Lucy/Joseph's life is in some senses very well documented, it gives us very little understanding of the inner person, and no really coherent story.

This novel is an excellent effort at supplying that coherent story, and a possible understanding of who Lucy/Joseph was to him/herself. Her further adventures, in the Minnesota Territory and the early years of the state of Minnesota,  then in New York again where she meets Marie Perry, and their subsequent life together is by turns fascinating and painful.

In a day when marriage equality and gender equity have made enormous progress, and the rights of transgender individuals have some protection even though not being fully accepted yet, this is an enlightening look at what life was like in earlier times for those who did not and could not fit the approved mold.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.