Book review: A Thin Bright Line, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe

Bledsoe, Lucy Jane. A Thin Bright Line. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. HC. $26.95. ISBN 9780299309305.

In 1997, Lucy Jane Bledsoe wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, Working Parts, so I was delighted for the chance to read her latest book, a unique foray into historical fiction. In some ways, the backstory involved in this novel’s creation is almost as interesting as the text itself.

As the author explains in a lengthy “Postscript,” her aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe, died in a Berkeley, California house fire in 1966 at the age of 43. Her niece was nine years old at the time of her death, but Lucy Jane never heard her aunt discussed within the family circle again. Lucybelle had been single and “well past the marrying age,” which may have aroused unspoken suspicions among her relatives. But Lucy Jane remained intrigued by the woman she had barely known, and after coming out as a lesbian herself at age 18, she wondered if her aunt had been gay as well.
As an adult, Lucy Jane set out to research her late relative, and the end result is this novel, in which the main character is indeed one “Lucybelle Bledsoe”. Our author created her plot and characters based on strong circumstantial evidence surrounding her aunt’s life and death.

Lucybelle is a sciences editor, and in 1956, at the height of America’s Cold War, she is offered a government job, working for a quirky yet visionary researcher whose goal is to extract the first-ever polar ice cores. While the occasional technical detail in this novel is somewhat daunting, readers shouldn’t worry about grasping it all. Suffice to say that Lucybelle–a lesbian on the run from a recently-shattered relationship–needs to be extremely circumspect in her new position at this particular time in American history.

We witness Lucybelle’s life unfold over the next 10 years, as she forms attachments to some equally-closeted fellow lesbians at work and has a few brief affairs along the way, all the while dealing with her idiosyncratic boss (who cares not one iota about her sexuality as long as she’s cautious) and the demands of both her job and her somewhat complicated social circles. At the book’s conclusion, Lucybelle has found a new partner and relocated to California. The future seems promising–until it’s not.

Lucy Jane Bledsoe does her usual fine job of delineating characters and their surroundings, and her dialogue scenes are outstanding. She offers an engrossing glimpse into the mores and strictures of a tightly-corseted time in American society, albeit one in which same-sex relationships still flourished behind closed doors. The fact that this novel’s main character represents a real woman who actually lived during the same remarkable times–down to her very name–adds a layer of poignancy to the entire work.

This book is recommended for historical fiction collections in general and LGBT fiction sections in particular. Lucy Jane has done her Aunt Lucybelle very proud.

Cathy Ritchie
Materials & Collection Management
Dallas (TX) Public Library

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