Critics of Rita Mae Brown often assert that she is too radical and too argumentative in her works. Others point out that she is dealing with a problem of acceptance that has been the plight of many minor writers. Brown is no more “defensive” about her sexuality than are many other lesbian or gay writers, such as Allen Ginsberg in his poetic statement Howl (1956).
What sets Brown’s work apart is that she does not disguise her prolesbian stance and does not become an apologist, as did some writers before her. Brown’s work is feminist and thus has put off some conservative readers. She began writing in the early 1970’s and was influenced by the National Organization for Women (NOW, an organization that asked her to leave because of her political views), the women’s movement, and the movement against the Vietnam War. Most important, Brown reacted to her own sense of freedom, discovered upon her relocation to New York City, where she could be open as a lesbian.
Structure is the basic element Brown considers when writing fiction, carefully planning the framework of each story and how characters, plot, and other literary elements will be placed. Brown’s relatives inspired her to write the Hunsenmeir novels, Six of One, Bingo, and Loose Lips, featuring the complexities of several generations of an extended southern family at different times in the twentieth century. Brown appropriated autobiographical elements for those books, in which character Nickel Smith, depicted at various ages, shares many of Brown’s own characteristics. Interested in ancient literature, Brown acknowledges being inspired by the intricate Greek plays of Aristophanes and other early dramatists. She frequently incorporates tall tales, lies, legends, and historical and literary references in her novels to develop characterizations and settings. Humor and absurdity often lighten the intense tone of Brown’s fiction, helping to expose facts and enabling broader awareness of nuances and secrets that would otherwise remain obscured.
During the late 1980’s, Brown deviated from her previous literary endeavors by beginning to publish mysteries. She published her eighth novel, Wish You Were Here, in 1990; it features a Virginia sleuth and her pets, including a cat named Mrs. Murphy. The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, which reviewers have described as cozies, have attracted readers who might have been unfamiliar with Brown’s previous works. Brown continued to produce both literary novels and Mrs. Murphy mysteries during the remainder of the 1990’s before developing a foxhunting mystery series. By the early twenty-first century, Brown was concentrating mostly on writing her two mystery series, both of which feature heterosexual female protagonists, weaving her social and political commentary more subtly into plots than she had done in her 1970’s novels.
Brown’s agrarian interests shape her mystery fiction, which emphasizes protecting natural resources and educating people to respect the environment. Sensory details, such as noting weather conditions and seasonal changes, enhance the landscape descriptions. Brown has noted that each mystery she writes occurs in a particular season, and she cycles consecutively through the seasons of the year in four novels. Emphasizing pastoral aspects of her settings, Brown devotes passages to the praise of nature and animals, inserting Bible verses occasionally. Her portrayals of settings as sanctuaries from modern stresses often convey a spiritual tone.
Brown’s affinity for animals has resulted in her giving some animal characters, both domestic and wild, names, and she has attributed some of her writing to their insights, including anthropomorphic dialogue and scenes from animals’ points of view; this has caused many literary critics to dismiss certain of her works. The resilience of people and of creatures remains an enduring theme in Brown’s fiction, in which characters become empowered by their experiences and interactions.
Brown’s novels draw on her own life; most of her work is clearly autobiographical. In her autobiography, Rita Will, Brown writes that when Rubyfruit Jungle was released, she received hate mail and threats on her life. The book is radical, and many readers found it upsetting.
Rubyfruit Jungle is a coming-of-age novel forprotagonist Molly Bolt; it is also a direct statement of Brown’s own coming-of-age. It describes the early life of Bolt, an adopted daughter of a poor family living in Coffee Hollow, Pennsylvania. Brown traces Molly’s life from Coffee Hollow to Florida to New York City and takes Molly from a naïve young girl of seven to a mature, worldly-wise woman in her mid-twenties. Molly Bolt’s life story is exactly that of Rita Mae Brown. In most cases, Brown presents all of the characters as merely renamed family members and friends from her childhood through her time in New York. During the course of the novel, the reader sees Molly defy local authority figures of every kind: parents, educators, family members, employers, and lovers. Molly has been described by at least one critic as similar to Huckleberry Finn in his rebellion against authority. Like that of Mark Twain, Brown’s style employs folk humor and observations about the world. Unlike Twain, however, Brown does not rely on dialect or local color, though Brown’s style is in the vein of other southern American writers, such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Alice Walker, who have a sharp eye for idiosyncratic behavior.
Molly moves to Florida, as did Brown. While there, she becomes aware of her feelings for other women, falls in love with her college roommate at the University of Florida, and is expelled for this love, just as Brown was expelled from the university for being a lesbian. Molly leaves Florida and arrives in New York City, where she establishes herself in the gay community of Greenwich Village. There she finds a menial job, puts herself through school, and meets a beautiful woman who becomes her lover. From this point on, the novel concentrates on Molly’s life as a lesbian.
When Molly left for New York, she was estranged from her mother. Only when she returns to Florida to film her mother as a final project for her degree does Molly really understand that the choices she has made have helped her to develop as an individual who can face the reality of her world. Breaking away from the homogeneity of family, friends, and society has been a difficult ordeal for Molly; however, it is something she had to do in order to grow. Brown explores a similar situation in her 2001...
(The entire section is 2736 words.)