Lambda Book Report (March 1999)
Mädchen in Uniform
To take the wilczy bilet, or the "wolf ticket", is to roam "like a hunted animal, every man's hand against you." In Caro Clarke's first novel, a historical romance set at the close of World War II, a cross-dressing Polish refugee has adopted precisely such a nomadic, dangerous aproach to wartime survival. But while Witold (née Bronia) Rukowicz may well have every man's hand against her, thanks to a chance encounter with Pascale, a well-connected Women's Army Corps translator who falls in love with her, she has virtually every lesbian in the European theater working to ensure her safety.
The love-at-first-sight meeting between Witold and Pascale (the only character who instantly sees through the refugee's assumed gender) and their almost immediate separation provide Clarke ample opportunity imaginatively to recreate a rich wartime lesbian culture as each of the lovers journeys through France in search of the other. En route, Witold/Bronia is initiated by a buxom American nurse into the mysteries of lesbian sexuality, mysteries which she obligingly shares with Sibylle, a bitter provincial French prostitute with a heart of gold. Not to be outdone, Pascale lives it up in gay Paris, bedding Nell Tulliver, an American foreign correspondent who is celebrated as the only female journalist to cover Pearl Harbor. Conveniently, throughout these adventures both Pascale and Witold continually voice not only their undying love for each other, but also their admirably flexible attitudes toward monogamy. Even more conveniently, the lovers Pascale and Witold collect along the way cheerfully sacrifice their own desires to the greater good of True Lesbian Love, as represented by the novel's central star-crossed lovers.
If the novel's plot (and dialogue) feel forced at times, The Wolf Ticket is nevertheless a noteworthy achievement: Clarke makes lesbian history come alive by imagining a moment when women on the fringes of society discover in the chaotic aftermath of war their capacity for heroism and collective action.
Indeed, the setting for the novel may be the 1940s, but it has a very 1990s agenda: Clarke has not only lesbians from diverse class and national backgrounds working together for the common good, but also gay men, African Americans, and sex workers, creating an ad-hoc wartime Rainbow Coalition of sorts. As utopian as Clarke's vision may seem in the abstract, it acquires an air of reality through the subtle yet telling details she incorporates into her novel. We can easily imagine one lesbian WAC confiding to another that their colonel is "as nancy as they come," and therefore sympathetic to the gender-bending Witold's plight. Similarly, it is easy to see the bitchy, exploited French whore finding temporary happiness with an African-American G.I. who shared with her his love of jazz. Or to visualize Nell Tulliver receiving, in response to her request for information on the lost Witold, a letter from a fellow gay journalist that begins, coyly, "Darling Nelly...Isn't it yours truly who's supposed to chase the men?" These wonderful touches that not only help Clarke's characters to transcend their sometimes ponderous dialogue, but also to remind us that behind all official accounts--of war and otherwise--lie fascinating, complicated stories in which would-be outsiders collaborate in mutually affirming acts of humanity, compassion, and love.
Perhaps the most surprising, daring, and therefore powerful aspect of the novel is its troubling conclusion. Without giving too much away, it bears noting that the moody, disturbing last chapter of the novel subverts the romance tradition out of which it arises by giving us a wedding that is nightmarish in its coercive tidiness. Everything is in place, down to the cake-cutting and the bouquet toss, but one feels the novel, like the characters themselves, writhing under the demands of tradition and narrative closure. Although the final pages seem to reassert the possibility of lesbian love in an uncomprehending and sometimes hostile world, doubt lingers, like a wedding cake mashed under a pillow.
© Jeannine DeLombard (Lambda Book Report)
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