Book review: Babette, by Ross Eliot

Eliot BabetteEliot, Ross. Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth. Heliocentric Press. 2014. $17.95. 345p. PB. 978-0-9911861-0-5.

It’s hard to decide which is the more interesting character, the author or his subject. Ross Eliot, 21, arrived in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 and soon started taking classes at the community college. The following June he moved into Professor Ellsworth’s basement pantry in exchange for helping her with driving and household tasks. Dr. Ellsworth died in February, 2002, leaving Eliot to wrap up her affairs as he finished college. This memoir covers those four years.

Eliot portrays himself as very laid back, though a bit startled when he carries his possessions up the front steps, only to be greeted by the professor in the nude. Over time, Dr. Ellsworth entrusts fragments of her story to “Wrahs,” as she calls him, even as he tells us his own experiences with Portland’s activists and hipsters. He learns that as an infant Dr. Ellsworth was taken without benefit of adoption to France and grew up there until after World War II. Gradually it becomes clear that Dr. Ellsworth transitioned from Albert to Babette in the 1990s. Before that, there were several wives and other relationships.

Babette is a memorable character: a lively storyteller of history’s scandals, a youthful fan of Hitler, an atheist lover of Catholic ritual, a perpetrator of real estate intrigue, and to the very end a pursuer of liaisons with women. Eliot soaks up culture from her and acquires a diverse mix of friends, sleeping with more than a few of them. Though told by someone who is not transgender, this is an affectionate portrait that does its best to honor her memory and not treat Babette’s being transgender as her whole story. Anyone who likes to read about interesting lives will find this a fascinating story, but since neither author nor professor is known outside of Portland, the book will require promotion by librarians.

Carolyn Caywood, retired
Virginia Beach Public Library

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