I wanted to start this review with the words ‘Growing up gay is hard.’ And while every part of that is true, it’s not in the spirit of Rubyfruit Jungle, which celebrates a shrugging off of oppression, the adventure of self-discovery, and the shredding of labels and limits. My god, how I could have done with this book when I was younger – but how out of the question it was at the time to get hold of queer literature (or anything on the periphery). The only LGBT section I remember seeing in our island library were medical textbooks (and this was in the 90’s/00’s!)
Rubyfruit Jungle was written in 1976, a breakthrough lesbian novel (though Brown herself would argue that this is a story about people in general, not a subsection of society) that has no doubt helped to shape modern queer literature. The particular version I own has a wonderful introduction by Rita Mae Brown herself, written in 2015. Some of her words are so perfect that I can only repeat them here word for word:
“When I wrote Rubyfruit Jungle in 1971 (the year I wrote it was not the year it was published), the only way to begin to understand your situation was to take the label given to you by others, a label devised centuries if not millennia before, and to understand how this became hardened oppression. That work is done. Think about it. Once you buy into a definition of yourself that has been made by others, you’re a victim. Victims draw great strength by banding together and declaring a common oppression and a common (always glorious, of course) culture. Perhaps, but you’re still a victim […] the most revolutionary thing you can do is to be yourself, to speak your truth, to open your arms to life including the pain. Passion. Find your passions […] If Rubyfruit Jungle helped to push you on your path to freedom, I’ve done something right.”
Our protagonist Molly Bolt has a strong sense of self. Despite collecting a vast number of labels from the people around her as she grows up in the 1970’s – ‘bastard’, ‘orphan’, ‘lesbian’, ‘queer’, ‘spic’, ‘ugly’, ‘monogamous’, ‘housewife’, ‘loud’ – she is unphased, and takes delight in throwing them all aside to focus on her passions. Readers who have ever felt judged or discriminated against will find freedom in Rubyfruit Jungle as Molly charges ahead of us all, living her life as she pleases and fiercely dismissing anyone who dares disapprove of her; leaving an open road behind her for others like us to walk down (not unlike Rita Mae Brown herself who was a key figure in the American Civil Rights movement and Gay Liberation).
As well as its important themes, Rubyfruit Jungle is absolutely hilarious. Rita Mae Brown’s prose is at once witty, shrewd, and beautiful. Through her confidence, Molly manages to turn otherwise upsetting and traumatizing encounters into comedic moments that highlight the absurdity of the ignorance she’s faced with. And then there are just moments of pure gold like “Rhea […] had a full-blown heterosexual crush on James. She’d practically slide into the office on her own lubrication and croon at him.”
I’m sure that entire theses have been written on the main themes and motifs of this novel, but the main one that stood out to me is that the search for individual identity is not limited to defining oneself sexually or by gender. Molly herself says: “People have no selves anymore (maybe they never had them in the first place) so their home base is their sex—their genitals, who they fuck.“
Molly is unapologetically herself at all times, though we experience glimpses into other character’s lives, where they shrug off societal expectations for a moment, only to retreat back to what is ‘expected’. When her Aunt Jenna dies, a young Molly finds her father comforting her uncle in the middle of the night: “Carl was holding Ep. He had both arms around him and every now and then he’d smooth down Ep’s hair or put his cheek next to his head […] A couple times I could hear Carl telling Ep he had to hang on, that’s all anybody can do is hang on […] I’d never seen men hold each other. I thought the only things they were allowed to do was shake hands or fight. But if Carl was holding Ep maybe it wasn’t against the rules. Since I wasn’t sure, I thought I’d keep it to myself and never tell. I was glad they could touch each other. Maybe all men did that after everyone went to bed so no one would know the toughness was for show.”
Her adoptive mother Carrie is the judge and enforcer of these rules – reminding Molly at every turn that she is perverse, unloveable, and no child of hers. Despite being brought up in a household where her limitations – her Lifescript – as a woman is explained to her in great detail, Molly questions and rebels against this from a young age.
In particular, her crush on Leota in primary school develops into romance when she asks:
“Leota, you thought about getting married?”
“Yeah, I’ll get married and have six children and wear an apron like my mother, only my husband will be handsome.”
“Who you going to marry?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Why don’t you marry me? I’m not handsome, but I’m pretty.”
“Girls can’t get married.”
“It’s a rule.”
“It’s a dumb rule. Anyway, you like me better than anybody, don’t you? I like you better than anybody.”
“I like you best, but I still think girls can’t get married.”
“Look, if we want to get married, we can get married. It don’t matter what anybody says.”
The interaction is so innocent and focused entirely on the two of them in the moment as they go on to have a school affair, rather than concern about anything else in the future. It is a stark contrast between the Leona that Molly meets years later when she returns to her childhood home – someone who is married with multiple children, exhausted, and claiming that she is too old to have a life of her own now. She is racist, sexist and homophobic – raising questions on where Molly lives, why she’s not married and instead pursuing filmmaking, and even telling her that they put ‘people like her away’. Molly is mostly unphased, as she can see the encounter for what it is – ignorance – but it is a reminder of the way in which people may shrink over time to fit into boxes to please society.
In addition to the lesbian themes, Brown also explores racism (Molly accidentally entering the ‘colored bathroom’ and being reprimanded by Carrie – another reminder to her that she is not just a label and doesn’t judge other people in the same way: “I don’t care what the hell I am. And I ain’t staying away from people because they look different.”) the patriarchy, women’s inequality, and capitalism. At no point does she accept these pre-written rules and oppressions, preferring instead to go her own way.
I’ve given this 4 out of 5 stars because there were some slower chapters that didn’t add much to the narrative – and in addition, a strange section where Molly (dating a mother and daughter and not averse to a threesome) talks about consensual incest as no big thing. Which was icky and out of the blue. But if you’re interested in reading either important literary classics, or embuing yourself with some permission and confidence to be who you are, read this book.