A man is born in the body of a woman. Although not stated outright, hints and suggestions of “the mark of Cain” filled the book and haunted the life of Stephen Gordon. Born to an aristocratic couple in the late 1800’s, her father expected to have a son. When a daughter was born he decided to give the child the chosen boy’s name.
Growing up Stephen feels different from other children as she looks like a boy and is drawn to their pursuits. With her father’s encouragement, she excells at riding and hunting, but her feminine mother is repelled by her masculinity and finds it difficult to speak with or even touch her. Puzzled and saddened by this rejection and having no friends except her father and governesses, Stephen is a lonely girl.
Once grown up she wore tailored suits and cut her hair, much to the dismay of her mortified mother. Her first love affair with a bored, selfish woman ended in disaster. Apprised of the situation the mother lashed out cruelly and threw Stephen out of her beloved home.
WWI came and took most of the able bodied young men. Stephen got a job at the front lines as an ambulance driver. Brave and tough, she and other women risked their lives daily until the war was finally over.
The story was refreshingly real and I liked Stephen a lot. At the tirade she attempted to connect with her mother, rather than trade insults. Her capacity to love and give far exceeded the return. Throughout the book she displayed a touching faith in God, even while questioning why He made her “a freak”. Stephen was a moral person and unexpectedly conventional. Her lack of pretensions aroused my sympathy and admiration.
Angry at the double standards of a hypocritical society, she railed in silence.
And what of the women who had worked in the war – those quiet, gaunt women she had seen about London? England had called them and they had come; for once unabashed, they had faced the daylight. And now because they were not prepared to slink back and hide in their holes and corners, the very public whom they had served was the first to turn in our midst , this nest of unrighteousness and corruption! That was the gratitude they had received for the work they had done out of love for England!
Although Hall skillfully weaves nature verses nurture arguments, we know nowadays that simply wanting a boy, even badly, will not physically change a girl into one. DNA and genes exist long before awareness that conception has taken place. Nature wins.
Reaching all humanity the characters reflect the suffering of all rejected people and groups, not just lesbians. The right to be different, to be valued for who we are, not what we are, is the uncompromising theme of this powerful book. I was blown away by its dignity, humility, and strength. Five stars.