I didn’t realize how hungry I was for a good lesbian novel until I read Bishop’s Run by B.D. Gates. Reading this novel made me realize how unsatisfying other novels I’ve read have been. I have to admit I haven’t spent much time looking for lesbian novels, and there may be good novels out there already that I just haven’t read yet. (Don’t worry, I will get to reading them eventually!) Mostly what I’ve read before is works of literature with “queer” themes by professional fiction writers. Although they are technically great pieces of writing, they aren’t as satisfying to my lesbian heart as a novel written by an ordinary lesbian for the entertainment of a purely lesbian audience.
Bishop’s Run is the story of Bishop, a woman who wakes up after a near-death experience and finds herself being nursed back to health and taken care of by the Witness Protection Program. She has to take on a new identity as a woman named “Lisa Baxter” and start her life all over in a new place. The novel takes us through her journey to recovery, starting a new job, meeting new people, and trying to hide and forget the life she left behind. Her new identity is provided by Witness Protection, and it’s quite different from her real life story, so it’s a process for her to learn to live convincingly as “Lisa Baxter” when her real self keeps threatening to reveal itself.
Bishop, now renamed Baxter, lands in a small town called Tenley in the southern United States. Although she is living in the Bible Belt, the story doesn’t focus on homophobia or intolerance—instead it paints a charming picture of rural life and friendly neighbors. The people of Tenley are very kind to her and make sure she gets everything she needs. The first part of the book is very positive—it’s all about her finding a job she enjoys, making friends, joining a softball team, and finding the other members of her local lesbian “tribe.” There is a long history of novels with lesbian characters who either die, go crazy, end up with a man, or lead a miserable life, and this novel does the opposite. It’s a refreshing story of lesbian success, health and happiness.
That’s not to say that it’s overly or unrealistically positive. It does contain the normal frustrations of lesbian life—like when you get your heart broken, or when you go through rough patches with your friends, or when your softball team isn’t playing well because of the dyke drama occurring among the players! And there is an occasional mention of homophobia, but it’s not the focus of the book.
There is a subtle butch/femme flavor among the characters, and I love the way it’s presented. Gates doesn’t try to categorize anyone using superficial markers or stereotypes. She rarely calls anyone by any label, and only uses the word “butch” once in the whole novel. She just describes their personalities and it comes through. The narrator, Bishop, is a “full-on dyke” and “not the frilly type,” who loves to crack jokes, play cards with the guys, and flirt with women. She is given the name of “Lisa” for her new life, but she finds it too feminine, and prefers to be called by her new last name, “Baxter.” Her butch personality is visible in a whole lot of subtle behaviors, like the way she flirts and carries herself. The women Bishop finds interesting are pretty women who are also strong people who can stand up for themselves, drive fast and shoot a gun. They come across as authentic and endearing lesbian personalities.
This is the first time I’ve read a novel with a happy butch narrator. The only other novel I’ve read starring a butch lesbian is Stone Butch Blues, which, although it’s an excellent book for many reasons, is characterized by almost never-ending misery. Bishop’s Run is the story of a happy butch, who lives her life the way she wants to as an out lesbian, who overcomes her obstacles and thrives in life no matter where she is planted. Although she has experienced some violence, it’s not related to her being a masculine lesbian. Despite having masculine mannerisms and being an obvious dyke, she feels no discomfort with her female body. She is the butch hero that the lesbian community has always needed.
One of the first things I want to know when I pick up a lesbian novel, after “Does anyone die or go crazy?” is whether there is a sex scene and whether it’s good (because sometimes they aren’t!) Let me tell you, there are several, and they are stunning. Gates describes sex between women in full detail in a way that is realistic and exquisitely satisfying both physically and emotionally. They are beautiful to behold and you may have to go back and read them twice.
This novel was refreshing both for its positive portrayal of lesbians and also its exclusive focus on lesbians. It’s not about “queer” people or any kind of special snowflake – it’s about a real lesbian community rather than an alphabet soup that includes the whole world. The way the lesbians in Tenley take care of each other is touching and beautiful. They don’t allow any dykes to go homeless, to be left out or alone, they befriend each other and watch out for each other. Older lesbians serve as role models for the younger ones to look up to. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the community we are longing for.
Here are a few words about the author. She is a butch lesbian living in a small Southern U.S. town. She’s old enough to remember what the lesbian community used to be like but “doesn’t feel any older than 28.” She started writing this novel just for fun but became more determined to publish it as it came along. Here are some words of hers from a short interview:
“When I started writing this around June 2015, I was writing out of boredom, and creating an alternate reality was a great escape. I “went to Tenley” every day and visited with the lesbian characters I’d imagined, I thought about them when I wasn’t writing and, quite suddenly, they were real and they were driving the story, telling me what was happening, what they were thinking, I just had to type fast enough to keep up with them. Then came the “Purge of 2016,” when all the lesbian and bisexual women were killed off on multiple TV shows in a matter of months and it broke my heart. All across my social media platforms, women were just shattered. I didn’t grow up seeing myself reflected on any screen that didn’t end with tragedy or death for any character remotely like me, so you’d think I’d be used to it, but I wasn’t. It hurt like hell. I hadn’t intended to publish “Bishop’s Run,” but when I looked at what I had been writing for myself and realized that damned few people, if any, were writing for real, honest-to-god butches, and that butches deserved our lives represented as much as anyone, I decided that my story wasn’t just for me anymore. So, “Bishop’s Run” is for the butches, and the women who love them.”
I was surprised to hear that she didn’t originally intend to publish it, because I think it’s the Lesbian Novel of the Year. It’s my all-time favorite one. Great things happen when we create our own materials and represent ourselves. This is a fantastic contribution to the lesbian community.
You can purchase the book on Amazon at this link.