4 min

Gulf islands

Can we still connect over time?

Credit: Suzy Malik

When Jane Rule wrote her 1977 novel The Young In One Another’s Arms, in which the central character Ruth Wheeler is a straight, one-armed 50-year-old, 50 was definitely not the new 40, not yet. 1977 was the age of Aquarius and youth/hippie culture, a time when 30, let alone 50, was seen to be over-the-hill, and women of a certain age entered a sorry state of meno-pausal stasis, foregoing individual amibitions and drives.

And so it is for Ruth Wheeler. Full of grief for a life of heartache and loss, she turns her energy on the young people (the ones who are in and out of each others’ arms) and her mother-in-law who inhabit her boarding house. Through dramatic plot turns too many to enumerate, but including the demolition of her house, a police standoff, a murder, the death of her husband, a birth and a police raid, her polyglot tenants happily and easily forge ahead, redefining what it is to be family in an idyllic and utopian commune they set up on Galiano Island. Along the way they are given platforms on which to discuss marriage, abortion, racism, homosexuality, sexism, aging and death.

Despite the grand themes of the novel, most specifically that of mortality and the will to live (in this regard Rule aligns herself with the meaning behind WB Yeats’s poem “Sailing To Byzantium” from which the title of her book is drawn), and despite her wisdom and compassion, Ruth is a character who came of age in the 1950s, full of self-immolating resignation to a supporting role as a middle-aged caregiver to flower children and the aged alike. This, and the highly allegorical tone of the novel, remind you it was written in a decade very unlike our current one.

In 1977 I was a tie-dye-wearing art student, straight and naïvely unaware that most of the students I hung out with were gay. By the mid-1980s, when I began my first affairs with women, I was ready for Jane Rule’s novels and read them voraciously. Her novels have always featured politically aware, alternative-living characters young and old, gay and straight, and I easily identified with those on the young end of the scale. But now, 20 years later and a woman of a certain age, I find I don’t much like the character of Ruth and I’m glad the experience of aging has changed over the past 30 years.

The Young In One Another’s Arms is Jane Rule’s fourth novel, winning the Canadian Authors Association Award for best novel in 1978. As with her other books, it was translated and published in several other countries, for Rule had an international audience by then. The book was also one of the reasons the author became well known around the world as a producer of banned books, thanks to the excesses of Canada Customs. Rule is no stranger to the battle to have her books freely circulate in Canada, having had her books detained at the border as recently as 1993. She became central in the fight against censorship that Vancouver’s Little Sister’s bookstore took to the Supreme Court Of British Columbia from 1994 to ’96 – a fight that continues to this day. Giving testimony on the stand, Rule expressed her outrage at how Customs seizures had undermined her reputation as an author and criminalized her, and by extension her community, because of her sexual orientation.

And so it’s not surprising that the new Little Sister’s Classics series, published by Arsenal Pulp Press and dedicated to reviving lost or out-of-print classics of gay and lesbian literature, would launch in April 2005 with one of Rule’s books. (In addition to the novel, the reissue contains an introduction by US writer Katherine V Forrest, several reviews from 1977, excerpts from an interview and sample pages from the original manuscript.)

That they chose this one is a surprise. Unlike, say, Desert Of The Heart, it’s not overtly gay in its themes and characters, and it’s by no means her best book. A clue lies in the preface, written by the Classic’s editor Mark Macdonald, who states, “The Young In One Another’s Arms is a complex and highly focussed novel about the kinds of community that Rule spoke about that day in court. The book speaks to how we are as individuals, with all of our disparate backgrounds and causes, and how, when we come together, we are stronger as a community than on our own.”

At the same time that I’m reading The Young, I’m reading The Marriage Question in the June issue of Toronto Life and Russell Smith’s newest novel, Muriella Pent. The Toronto Life story promises an “intimate look at the politics of love, romance and family in the era of gay marriage” in a time when “to wed or not to wed” is a subject suddenly unavoidable for gay and lesbian couples in Toronto. Couples come down on both sides of the fence of course, and the most striking are the two lesbian couples with children. One couple, labelled “The Feminists,” are in their late 40s and 50s and are vehemently opposed to marriage as a “restrictive, anachronistic patriarchal institution.” The other younger couple in their 30s, called “The Newlyweds,” view marriage as legal status that is good for both themselves and their son. The first couple is still in trench-warfare fatigues, products of the politics and idealism of the 1970s when redefining family and community was a radical (separatist) act. The second couple just simply isn’t.

In Smith’s Muriella Pent, a well-meaning but politically-driven city arts committee brings Marcus Royston, a Caribbean-born poet, to Toronto on a cultural exchange. Instead of being the politically correct mouthpiece the committee expects, he proves to have a greater fondness for women and booze than for politics. In an interview with a weekly culture magazine, Royston further damns himself by expressing more interest in Fort York and colonial history than he does in a discussion of racism. In the subsequent article, titled “Caribbean’s father of revolutionary conscience scorns artist’s responsibility for social change,” Royston bemoans the fact that he can count the word “community” nine times in the article.

Despite Smith’s sophomoric and got-an-axe-to-grind parody of that part of Toronto’s culture community driven by the correct-politics of race, gender, sex, age et al, the book suggests an interesting observation. In 2005, the word “community” has become a farcical, meaningless, embattled word for many. The word “community” has been used for 30 years to cajole, berate and restrict as much as it has been a word of inclusion and strength.

Feminism, globalization, gay and lesbian rights and aging baby boomers have all had their impact on the transformations of our concepts of aging, family and community. The Young In One Another’s Arms takes up those themes, as do most of Rule’s books, undoubtedly contributing, as does all good art, to the social changes we have experienced. While Rule’s writing may be pedagogical it is never didactic and the book stands up to the intervening years so that as contemporary readers we may not only assess our progress but do it while reading a good story by one of our most iconic writers.