Traf is the archetypal tomboy, the first girl to play football with the boys, competing with her brother in everything, ringleader and troublemaker. As she grows from a child to a feisty teen she realizes she is more different than just her hatred of the confinements of skirts and ladylike behavior. In the extremely regimented and catholic word of the Portuguese Azores in the early 1960’s she must fight to be herself and carve a life in a tiny community where there is nowhere to hide.
This is an interesting read. We have stories of British and American lesbian life in the ‘50s and 60’s, but this is the first I have come across set in another country, and the differences are intriguing. The old-world Island of Terceira is tiny and the populations small: the group of ‘maria rapaz’ (tomboys) stands out and draws attention. The island is extremely conservative in many ways, girls not even allowed to dance with boys until they are formally courting, and their courting done with a chaperone present at all times. Women have a very clearly defined role and are forcibly not allowed to step out of them.
Vitoria (Traf) was never cut out to fit in the world of parental and patriarchal control and rebels in every conceivable way. As she grows she draws a group of like-minded women around her, and over time they form into a butch and femme group; friends, lovers, community and club. While their struggles to find themselves and establish a lifestyle is similar to tales from elsewhere, the level of violence they suffer for being visibly gay is shocking and at times heart rendering.
Life on the island is fascinating, showing us a different world in both terms of the rural lifestyle and the old fashioned ways. Ms Sebastian uses it to great effect as both a backdrop and as a way to place these women in a different world. The landscape is very much part of the story and the land a strong presence in the women’s lives.
The group of lesbians are a colourful mix, themselves set into rigidly defined roles of butch and femme that constrain their lives. Even there Traf rebels, constrained by the perceived role of a butch but frustrated by the rules which expect her to act like a husband and yet denies her sexual release.
Everything about this book feels very slightly alien. It’s a glimpse into a life where generations of customs and religious beliefs have regimented every aspect of women’s lives, with a European twist and a Portuguese flavour.
There’s a twist in the tale that suggests this will become a series, and I will want to read what happens next, whether Traf escapes the confines of her life through her career in the US Air Force, or convinces herself to stay loyal to a home and girlfriend that seem wholly too small for her.
(publisher review copy received)
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