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Lynne Cheney's Wild, Wild West

Commentary | PATT MORRISON

August 11, 2004|PATT MORRISON

It's one weird summer when the nation's favorite beach reading inclines to bestsellers by Bill Clinton, the 9/11 commission, John Dean and Tommy Franks ... real page-turners.

But then there's another book, written by another well-known political figure, and it's a doozy. Throughout its pages are fornication (the heroine with her late sister's husband), incest (half brother knocks up half sister), adultery (the heroine, with her first husband's friend), contraception (by the wed and the unwed) and lesbian couplings (the heroine's sister and an older woman). And incidentally, lynchings, dogicide, cattle theft and robber-baronism.

The book was published 23 years ago, before the author's husband became one of the nation's most influential politicians, and before the author became a Valkyrie in the culture wars. And the author is

It's Lynne Cheney, wife of the Republican vice president. The book is a frontier novel of the 19th century called "Sisters." It's hot, it's sexy and it's out of print.

I could find only 11 copies in all of the nation's public libraries, mostly in red states: four in Wyoming, Cheney's home state, and one each in North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Kansas, Virginia, and Kern County, Calif.

On the Internet, the original 1981 $2.50 Signet paperback has an asking price of $2,999.95 to $25,000, the latter more than the cost of a first edition of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." I have "Sisters." I can't reveal my sources, but my hot copy is now in a secure, undisclosed location. (Thanks, Mom.)

A proposal this spring to reissue the book was deep-sixed by Cheney, whose lawyer explained it wasn't her best work. It doesn't show up in her White House website biography. During the 2000 campaign, she told the New York Times she hoped the book would start "flying off the shelves." Now she doesn't want it to fly at all. What a flip-flopper.

Naturally, demand is in inverse proportion to availability. In March, the New York Theatre Workshop staged a performance of choice scenes. The snicker factor is obvious, with passages like "Let us go away together, away from the anger and imperatives of men," and "Eve and Eve, loving one another" in "a passionate, loving intimacy." So is the hypocrisy potential, when both Cheneys and their lesbian younger daughter are laboring to reelect a man who regards Adam-and-Steve nuptials as the death knell for civilization.

The book as a whole, though, is even more radical. "This is a very feminist book," said Elaine Showalter. She's a Princeton English professor emeritus who ran across "Sisters" at a Paris bookstall about a dozen years ago and wrote about it for a scholarly publication. I reached her on vacation, which I hoped was being financed by a five-figure sale of that long-ago copy, but wouldn't you know it -- she'd sold it some years ago for $25.

"I couldn't believe it was Lynne Cheney," Showalter told me. "At that point she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I've had many not personal but institutional dealings with her; she had a reputation as being pretty tough on women's history and feminist criticism."

Showalter thought the book did a "wonderful job" of dramatizing "the role of women in the West ... she'd clearly read [the historical research] and wrote sympathetically. It's about women breaking away from the dollhouse and striking out on their own." If Cheney ever did allow a reprint, Showalter would probably be delighted to write a jacket blurb.

Cheney, who earned a PhD in literature -- that's one of the liberal arts -- set the book in 1886 Wyoming, a rough paradise where women got the vote in 1869 and used it. When the territory was invited to become a state in a nation that barred women from voting, Wyoming thumbed its nose at Congress -- "We may stay out of the Union 100 years, but we will come in with our women" -- and kept state suffrage. The West led the way for women, and Wyoming led the West. Soon Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Washington gave women the vote; so, in 1911, did California.

The cover describes the heroine as "beautiful, strong-willed," which is book-jacket code for an uppity woman about to be tamed by some man. Not this time. The lesbianism, the adultery, the contraception would offend some Bush voters, but it's the frank, uncensorious feminism that's really astonishing. Cheney's women do what has to be done. No divine bolt splits the heavens to punish lesbians and fornicators. Life happens.

I found myself thinking that, in some ways, Lynne Cheney's 19th century Wyoming sounds like a better place for women than George W. Bush's dream for 21st century America.

In Lynne Cheney's Wyoming, the heroine doesn't feel she has to be a powerhouse in private and a dimpled simp in public. "I'm not caught up in that kind of hypocrisy," she says. "I've spent my life facing it down."

In Lynne Cheney's Wyoming, the heroine debates with the governor and drops an opera house chandelier on a man trying to kill her.

In Lynne Cheney's Wyoming, a woman might even tell a tormentor to "shove it," and earn a frontier "you go, girl" for saying so.

*

Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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