Routsong, Alma

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Born 26 November 1924, Traverse City, Michigan; died 4 October 1996

Wrote under: Isabel Miller

Daughter of Carol and Esther Miller Routsong; married Bruce Brodie, 1947 (divorced, 1962); children: Natalie, Joyce, Charlotte, Louise

As Isabel Miller, Alma Routsong wrote A Place for Us (1969, later published as Patience and Sarah, 1972, reprinted in 1994), one of the first American novels to deal openly and optimistically with lesbianism. Raised in the Midwest, Routsong received her B.A. from Michigan State University in 1949. She married Bruce Brodie after a brief stint as a hospital apprentice in the U.S. Navy (1945-46) and "lived the straight life to the hilt" for 15 years, her life roughly paralleling that of Henrietta in her first novel, A Gradual Joy (1953).

Considered at the time to be something of a model for happy heterosexuality, Joy chronicles the evolving marriage of Henrietta and Jim, children of the Depression drawn together more by a desire for stability and security than by love or passion. By mutual agreement they continue to pursue their own interests: Jim as a teacher, Henrietta as a medical student. After some initial difficulties, they suddenly discover what a New York Times reviewer called "the real meaning of love." Jim becomes more concerned with the marriage, Henrietta with homemaking. With the arrival of their daughter, she abandons her professional aspirations to become "a real wife and mother." Her decision goes without comment.

Central to heterosexual union for Jim and Henrietta are sacrifice and compromise. Central to Patience and Sarah's union in A Place For Us, on the other hand, are freedom and fulfillment. This may be less a comment on heterosexual convention than on the author's experience of it. What makes A Place For Us remarkable, however, is not how it differs from A Gradual Joy, but how it differs from other literary portrayals of lesbian existence available at the time of its publication.

Set in the early 1800s, Place is a rather conventional love story: two people discovering themselves and each other in the context of evolving love and intimacy. The uniqueness of the novel lies in its portrayal of women lovers, who are neither seen as tragic nor subjected to other popular stereotypes about lesbians. The women are, to some extent, misfits. Patience, well educated and left with an inheritance that allows her a modicum of independence, is on her way to becoming an "old maid," as she puts it. Coming from a family with no sons, Sarah was reared by her father to perform traditionally male tasks, so the family might be able to eke out its living. Their respective eccentricities cause some distrust and disapproval but they remain fully integrated in their rural Connecticut community until they eventually fall in love with each other. The point at which they begin to desire a life together is the point at which they realize they must create a space for themselves elsewhere.

Each woman wavers in her commitment to this goal at different moments in the novel. Patience eventually forces the issue—covertly, but cleverly. The two set out for New York State to make a life together and their relationship continues to evolve, and their intimacy deepens, as they go. They buy a farm and build a home together as the novel comes to a close.

Many readers have felt the story leaves off where it ought to be beginning. Yet given the time when it was written and the era it is written about, Place must concern itself less with a life together than with the need to find—or make—a safe space in which this life can unfold. For this reason, the original title is more accurate than the sanitized, isolating Patience and Sarah, under which McGraw-Hill published the work in 1972 and as it is generally known today. The original title defies stereotype, Us implying a community, if only a community of two, rather than solitary individuals.

Routsong also refused to typecast her lesbian protagonists. Their identities are complex, as is their relationship. Sarah is more overtly masculine and Patience is more overtly feminine. Read carefully, however, this is not simply "butch/femme" role playing. The women need Sarah's "masculine" skills—the tasks she learned as a "boy"—in order to survive on their own. They also need Patience's "feminine" wiles to survive when dealing with the straight world. Within their relationship they value and desire each other as women. As they do not internalize preconceived roles, nor deliberately rebel against them, they must negotiate their identities and their relationship.

The history of the novel runs parallel to its plot. Dissatisfied with available representations of women loving women, Routsong sought to create a new one. Unable to find a publisher at first, she printed the manuscript herself and sold the book out of shopping bags at meetings of burgeoning gay/lesbian rights groups. Such was the climate of fear that Routsong had to ask the editor of the Ladder, America's first and then only lesbian periodical, to vouch for the fact that Routsong was not an "FBI fink." Routsong distanced herself from her previous works by publishing Place, and such later lesbian-themed works as The Love of Good Women (1986, 1988), Side by Side (1990, 1992), and A Dooryard Full of Flowers (1993) under the pseudonym "Isabel Miller." (Miller was her maternal grandmother's surname; Isabel is an anagram for "Lesbia.") She told Jonathan Katz, "By using a new name, I wanted to start a new thing."

Side by Side tells the story of two girls who grew up together but were separated by their parents when the relationship took an intimate turn. Each pursued lesbianism on her own, and eventually reunited years later. As a Publisher's Weekly reviewer asserts, "The novel suffers from a lack of polish, and the narrow perspective will diminish its mainstream appeal." As with most of Routsong's other works, the novel is best suited to readers looking for a sympathetic discussion of homosexual issues.

Routsong's last publication was Laurel (1996), although her most popular, earlier book Patience and Sarah was reprinted in a special paperback edition early in 1999.

Other Works:

Round Shape (as Alma Routsong, 1959).


Katz, J., Gay American History (1976). Zimmerman, B., The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969-1989 (1990).

Reference works:

CA (1975, Online 1999). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

Advocate (Feb. 1996). Critical Quarterly (1995). The Ladder (Dec. 1969-Jan. 1970, Oct.-Nov. 1971, Aug.-Sept. 1971). Lesbian & Gay Voices: A Tribute to Isabel Miller (audiocassette, 1994). New Statesman (26 Feb. 1988). NYT (23 Aug. 1953). NYTBR (6 Sept. 1959, 23 April 1972). PW (Feb. 1990). SR (26 Sept. 1953). TLS (26 Feb. 1988). VV (20 April 1972).