Reading this thoughtful novel reminds today’s readers that nostalgia for the mid-20th century often glosses over the racism and sexism that were not just attitudes of many Americans, but were enforced with repressive laws and policies that are still used against marginalized people today. Martinac’s setting is an idyllic rural Virginia women’s college in 1960, where Gen Rider, the lone female history professor, struggles to enlighten classes of privileged white girls about Civil War-era slavery. She also struggles to hide her grief over a failed relationship with another woman. Her best friend, drama teacher Fenton Page, is likewise in crisis over his fears that a former lover, recently arrested for a homosexual encounter with a Black man, will implicate him as well. Both characters serve as alternating narrators, along with a few other faculty and students at Blaine College, creating a detailed portrait of McCarthy-era America on the cusp of the transformative Kennedy years.
This novel is timely because the threats faced sixty years ago by Gen and Fenton—sodomy laws, misogyny, gay conversion therapy, surveillance by malevolent neighbors, and attempts to censor education about America’s history of racism—continue to harm LGBTQ and BIPOC people. The last section of the novel includes testimony by Gen and Fenton’s colleagues and neighbors that remind readers how difficult it was even for well-intentioned straight allies to speak out against institutional bigotry. Lightening the grimness is the fact that Gen and Fenton are sympathetic characters; the setting also evokes the pleasures of academic life that attracted two such intelligent people to it despite its restrictions. Ultimately, this novel celebrates the bravery not only of the pre-Stonewall generation of LGBTQ people but also of the allies who were willing to risk their own careers and relationships to stand up for them.