“We Always Found Ourselves”
I read the novel Spring Fire as a 15 year old, and the title came to represent, for me, the whole concept of lesbian love. The words of the title itself could have been from a poem by Sappho or H.D. And they certainly summed up Spring Fire’s tale.
Before I even started reading, the author’s androgynous name, Vin Packer, told me what I needed to hear, and the protagonist of Spring Fire, a woman named Mitch, told the rest.
I would have been crushed if I’d found out Vin Packer was a guy, but we young lesbian readers knew, somehow, she wasn’t. The author understood us too well: our fears, our vulnerabilities and, most of all, our passions. Vin Packer was one of us. And she was a writer. In my book, it didn’t get any better. When I grew up, I wanted to be Vin Packer. I wanted to write Spring Fire.
The cover was not very different in style from others of its time, except for the absence of a robust male. I just about memorized it, eager for clues about gay people and our lives, but these women didn’t look like any dykes I’d ever seen. As Vin Packer wrote in her prologue to the 2004 reissue of Spring Fire, “Lesbian readers were able to look past the cover: to find themselves between the pages. We always found ourselves.”
That was exactly what I experienced as a gay kid, that I’d found myself between the pages of Spring Fire.
I wasn’t alone. No lesbian of my generation forgets her first lesbian books. Last month I asked my first girlfriend, Sue, if she remembered finding Vin Packer’s books, including Spring Fire. Sue e-mailed back, “Those were the first books I laid my hands on from the little bookstore near the 5th Av. Library, when I was riding the subway to and from work in NY. I couldn’t believe there were books about ‘US!’ I had to hide them from my parents but I / had / those / books!!!!” She added, “Thank Vin Packer for being so daring in those days.”
Not insignificant to a baby dyke, the mildly erotic scenes she wrote were, to say the least, inspiring. How I wished there were more books like this! I sought them out when I was in college and found Valerie Taylor, Ann Bannon and more Vin Packer books, under the name Ann Aldrich, at a newspaper store downtown. It’s not an exaggeration to say these brave and talented women may have saved my life. Reading their books was stepping into an alternate reality where right there, in black and white, women felt as I did. Just her existence gave the hope and resolve I needed to become a lesbian writer myself.
Under her real name of Marijane Meaker, she writes a little history in the foreword to Cleis Press’s 2004 re-issue of Spring Fire. The original publisher, Gold Medal Books, pre-censored the book. It was 1952 and the editor directed Meaker to give the book an unhappy ending. He told her the postal service would refuse to handle the book if a lesbian relationship was portrayed positively.
Nevertheless, Vin Packer stamped the malleable me with Spring Fire, just as she stamped and gave voice to thousands and thousands of lesbians fortunate enough to read her work in the years between the World War that connected and emboldened gay people with the years when we rioted and marched and challenged the courts – and changed the world.
Spring Fire was a powerfully written story that has survived despite the obstacles imposed on it by the time in which Vin Packer so courageously wrote it. The impact of Spring Fire on the baby dykes who would become fomenters, with their brothers, of gay and women’s liberation, cannot be denied, or applauded enough. For her talent, her courage, and her stories, the Golden Crown Literary Society presented its Trailblazer Award to Marijane Meaker and its Classic Award for her first novel, Spring Fire. Ms. Meaker accepted the honors by video, out and proud at age 84, still giving as, 60 years later, she told stories to a ballroom full of lesbian readers and writers.
Mary Jane Meaker’s books were there for me when I needed to see something about my newfound gay life in print. The experience of reading a Vin Packer or Ann Aldrich title was intensely exciting and left me shaken. I hid her books from my mother and from roommates in college, but nothing could stop me from reading them. Their very existence, the author’s defiant act of writing those stories, promised a literature of our own.