Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule is one of the great classic lesbian novels. It was originally released in 1964, when homosexuality was still illegal, and is the source material of the film Desert Hearts.
It’s the late 1950’s and Evelyn Hall is in Reno, Nevada for six weeks — just long enough to get a divorce. Once that’s taken care of, she will head back to her life as an English Professor in Oakland, California.
While staying in a boarding house, Evelyn meets Ann Childs. Ann is 15 years younger than Evelyn and lives with her stepmother at the boarding house while working at a local casino.
Evelyn doesn’t expect to find romance in Reno, especially with someone so much younger. Both women have a big decision to make when Evelyn’s six weeks are up: go their separate ways or start a new life that neither had ever imagined before.
Pros And My Favourite Parts
Reading this book is kind of like cracking open a time capsule and this is, hands down, my absolute favourite aspect. Because it was written in 1964 and I haven’t read it in nearly 20 years, I didn’t know what to expect (finally, not having an amazing memory came in very handy).
Although there is a strong romantic element to it and it has an optimistic ending, Desert of the Heart doesn’t really feel like a romance novel. This is because it doesn’t follow the conventions of romance, which makes sense since it predates the lesbian romance industry. It’s easy to see how important and affirming it would have been for queer women in the 1960’s to see Ann and Evelyn coming together.
I also appreciate that this book prompted me to learn more about that time period. For example, I didn’t know that Reno was the only place in the US where it was possible to get a quick and (relatively) painless divorce. However, to make it happen, people had to prove that they were residents, so they had to have been there at least 6 weeks before going to the courthouse. This created a local cottage industry around divorce, with people like Ann’s stepmother providing temporary lodging that allowed someone petitioning for a divorce to provide a local permanent address. Very interesting stuff!
Also, if you’re at all into audiobooks, I highly recommend listening to Desert of the Heart. It’s perfectly performed and I will listen to it again.
Cons And Heads Up
When people ask me the first lesfic book I ever read, I usually say And Playing the Role of Herself by K.E. Lane. While that’s because it’s the book that turned me into a lesfic reader, it’s actually not completely true.
Remember what I said above about my memory not always being the best? Well, I forgot that when I was in university, I found a bunch of Jane Rule’s novels in a used bookstore, and Desert of the Heart was one of them. I remember now how those books spoke to me, even when I couldn’t see or understand my own queerness. And there’s something still so vibrant and essential about her writing today.
Unsurprisingly, Desert of the Heart called to many, many other women too. Some of Jane Rule’s obituaries even noted that the book caused her to become Canada’s most famous lesbian at the time, with thousands of women writing to tell her how much her fiction meant to them.
As current politics turn increasingly difficult for queer people, it’s important to remember our literary ancestors and draw strength and hope from their stories. They fought for us and we can remember their examples as we take up our own fights. Desert of the Heart is essential reading if you want to know where we came from and I can’t recommend it enough.
Excerpt from Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule
“What time do you get off?” Evelyn asked, forcing a question against the candid look of sympathy Ann gave her as soon as they were alone in the room.
“Three or three thirty. I’ll be off at three tonight. Sunday’s fairly slow.”
“You must have to sleep all day.”
“Oh, no. I’m always up by eleven. These hot days I get up earlier. There’s no point in a night job if you sleep the day away.”
“I suppose not,” Evelyn said. She could not think of anything more to say that was not personal; and, because she herself disliked direct questions, she would not ask any. “I suppose not.”
“It really isn’t usually as bad as this,” Ann said. “I’m sorry about … all that nonsense I was talking.”
“Please …” Evelyn began but was troubled by the urgency in her own voice. What was the matter with her?
“Do you drive?” Ann asked quickly. “Because I really don’t use the car much during the day. Walt takes it to work. Any day you wanted to, you could drop him off and just have the car.”
“That’s very generous of you, but I …”
“Don’t refuse. You’ll need things to do.”
“I have plenty of work to do,” Evelyn answered, her voice quite under control, her eyes consciously and silently reminding Ann of the fifteen years that separated them.
“I’m sorry again,” Ann said, her smile relieved and self-mocking. “It’s just playground tactics: if you won’t be mad at me, I’ll let you play with my car.”
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Bits and Bobs
ISBN number: 9780889223011
Publisher: Open Road Media
Audiobook Publisher: Tantor Audio
Narrator: Traci Odom
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