Martha Moody by Susan Stinson

When Martha Moody’s husband decides they will move out west during the gold rush in the mid-1800s, she decides to stop before they get there. Leaving Martha with supplies, Mr. Moody continues on, and the wife he leaves behind builds an entire town: Moody. Set in the old west, Martha Moody by Susan Stinson is a work that wears many hats: western, romance, domestic fiction, lesbian fiction, fat fiction, and fantastical fiction.

Amanda Linger has been married and living in Moody for over ten years. She and her husband, John, don’t have any children, but appear content with their farm. Amanda’s favorite part of the farm is Miss Alice, their milking cow, who gives richer milk, and thus better butter, when Amanda tells her stories. A Christian woman, Amanda tells Bible tales. But when Carrie Nation arrives in Moody to organize the farm wives and attack the local taverns with hatchets, Amanda realizes she’s not quite the person she thought she was after seeking shelter in Moody’s General Store during the chaos and falling into bed with the store’s proprietor: Martha Moody.

Martha is described as a fat women with red hair and usually in a black dress. Amanda tells her friend Clara, “Martha has always had power. . . . She supplies the candies, the tobacco, the buckets, dried apples, everything. Her name is the name of the town. Men address themselves to her, women defer. The gossip about her failed marriage was that her husband was afraid of her.” A strong, proud figure, and Martha isn’t easily convinced to follow other citizens.

Martha and Amanda are able to meet clandestinely at Martha’s home until her father arrives, having lost his business and needing a home and employment. He’s less than gentlemanly and practically chases Amanda off with his presence. At home, things aren’t good between Amanda and husband John. Her mind filled with Martha, Amanda has been writing fantastical stories about her lover, tall tales mixed with Biblical stories and fables. In the stories, alongside Martha is Miss Alice, the cow, who is given wings and a butter-colored coat and called Azreal. When John finds the stories and realizes Amanda is a lesbian, he beats her mercilessly.

Martha Moody is a novel about strong, adaptable women. That they fill the pages of Stinson’s novel feels like entering a sacred space. Amanda runs her farm alone, Martha owns and operates the general store after building a town, and Amanda’s friend Clara supports Amanda unconditionally (and changes Amanda’s life). Even Ruth, a girl who does odd jobs for Amanda after John is run off, stands her ground, stating, “No kitchen work.” The town of Moody is a comfortable, inspiring place that lulled me as I read. Added to the lulling melody is Amanda’s fiction, which read like Zora Neale Hurston’s shorter pieces. Stories are bigger than real life, yet inspired by people and myths.

Stinson’s reason for Amanda writing about Martha are lovely. Amanda explains to Clara that having sex with Martha was like a language of its own, and because Amanda had always been a quiet person, that language suited her. But, after the arrival of Martha’s father and the cessation of their physical love, Amanda felt “blocked.” She explains, “But when touch was blocked, light was forced into my throat. I wanted to talk. . . . If the light couldn’t soothe itself against Martha, it had to have someplace to go.” And thus, a physical language is turned into a written one. Stinson avoids saccharine, expected declarations of love and cries over separation. In fact, in the excerpts of stories about Martha, there is no mention of Martha having a lover, only fictional power and abilities, likely a tribute of Amanda’s love.

Two fat women star in Martha Moody, both Amanda and the titular character. At one point, after Amanda has made many changes that don’t fit with polite society, she is told by Theda, who is “blunt and rich and elegant,” that the church prays for Amanda, who has stopped attending. Amanda gives the best middle finger moment I’ve read in a long time:

I thought I was going to thank her with quiet sarcasm. I thought I was just tucking the long tail of John’s shirt, but my hands had grown bolder since I had been on my own, and they pulled the shirt tails out of my waistband and lifted them to show Theda my white belly there in the public road.

Considering women are supposed to wear long skirts and pin up their hair during this time period, and that Amanda instead is wearing a men’s shirt (and no corset!), I love that she showed off her belly to insult Theda. I about died when I read this passage.

Stinson’s writing is as rich as the cow’s butter theme that appears in Martha Moody, and it’s easy to pick up her work again, to miss it when the book is not in your hands. The unexpected plot kept me wondering how it could end given the lesbian relationship and the time period. That’s why I was glad to see Martha Moody was just republished by Small Beer Press a few months ago with this wonderful new cover:

*Susan Stinson kindly mailed me all of her books to contribute to my project: finding books about fat women who don’t date or diet their way to happiness. As thanks, I’m giving away three brand-new copies of Martha Moody (U.S. only, please). Email me (grabthelapels@gmail.com) with your name and mailing address and I will purchase a book directly from the publisher, Small Beer Press, and send one to you.

16 comments

  1. The story-in-a-story elements of this appeal to me, though I tend to prefer Westerns to focus on adventure rather than romance. (Basically, every time I read a Western I want it to be Lonesome Dove and it never is). That is an amazing new cover though! And I like the idea of subverting a genre that’s typically so male with mostly female characters.

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    • I love Martha Moody’s origin story: she and her husband to “head West, young man” but eventually she decides she will go no further. He leaves her a few supplies, and she builds a whole town off of that. She’s quite amazing.

      There can only be one Lonesome Dove!

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  2. I love the way you put it of the book feeling like entering a sacred space. A woman-dominated western is so unique and it sounds really interesting given the different characters and the varying ways the women demonstrate independence.

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  3. A western without cowboys shooting Indians, that’s gotta be a good thing. Westerns have ‘bars’, interesting that it’s taverns here. Is that a regional difference? I’m not going to comment about a reimagined Lesbian west, but I did love Even Cowgirls get the Blues. (I prefer the middle cover).

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    • I’m not sure about the difference between bars and taverns, and it’s likely the mix up is mine, not Stinson’s. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is loads of fun, though I never think of it as a Western novel. She doesn’t get to the Rubber Rose Ranch until later in the book, so I always think of it being more like a road trip/Jack Kerouac-esque trip. But yes, to save the birds! A noble pursuit.

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  4. I love the sound of this one! How different, how clever how inspiring! Reading about strong women facing challenges in historical that seem insurmountable in today’s day and age is so fun, I find it really motivating actually.

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    • Aw, I’m so glad to hear this appeals to you! I’m actually looking through the press that sells Martha Moody and see that I can send e-books as a gift. I think I will update my post to say that I will include international folks with an e-book!

      Liked by 1 person

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