At once a love story and a lush comic masterpiece, Martha Moody is a speculative western which embraces the ordinary and gritty details — as well as the magic — of women's lives in the old west.
"This 'speculative western' first came out in 1995 but was just reissued. The first sentence is magnificent in the way it's a microcosm of the whole book, as well as a glimpse at the way Stinson writes so beautifully about fat bodies: 'I was crouched next to the creek baiting my hook with a hunk of fat when I heard a rustling on the bank upstream.'"– Alison Bechdel, Elle Magazine
"Susan Stinson's substantial and delicious historical novel, Martha Moody, has been reissued by Small Beer Press, and it is certainly cause for celebration. . . . Stinson has invented substantial woman heroes who have agency and imaginations and she's placed them into a historical novel in ways we had not seen before. . . . But the tale of Martha Moody is just part of this novel's pleasure. Stinson's language is joyful and buoyant. Her frame of reference includes liberal doses of Shakespeare, the bible, and Zane Grey, all of which make the novel such a complex and wonderful gift. Read and enjoy— preferably with a cup of tea and a luxuriously buttered biscuit nearby!"– Judith Katz, Lambda Literary
"Susan Stinson's Martha Moody is an exuberant, cheeky Western in which sensual hunger steers an offbeat homesteader toward freedom. Stuck in a dull marriage, Amanda is a Bible reader with an overactive imagination. She's closest to Clara, her gossipy neighbor, and spins yarns for Miss Alice, her bovine companion. When a temperance riot gets out of hand, Amanda seeks refuge with Martha Moody, the hefty, red-headed owner of the town's general store. Under the guise of selling butter, Amanda agrees to their trysts, all while writing racy stories about Martha and the angel Azrael, a winged cow. When Amanda's husband discovers her writing, it leads to violence. . . . With its down-to-earth portrait of a woman finding her voice, Martha Moody is an entertaining lesbian fantasy."– Karen Rigby, Foreword Reviews
"One of Stinson's triumphs is to make Amanda's fairy-tale success as a writer seem completely plausible amid the vivid depiction of the grime and hard work of her life as first a farmer's wife, then a single woman struggling to survive on the small homestead."– Margot Livesey, Scotland On Sunday
I was crouched next to the creek baiting my hook with a hunk of fat when I heard a rustling on the bank upstream. I turned my head and saw Martha Moody looking into the water.
She was a heavy woman bound up with dry and perishable goods, the owner of Moody's General Store. Her red hair was pulled into a bun and she wore a black dress with jet buttons that reflected light.
I was embarrassed to be caught fishing on Sunday with mud on my skirt, so I hid behind a cottonwood. Martha leaned over, unlaced her shoes, and rolled down her stockings. I watched as she tucked them beneath the root of a tree, then bunched her skirt up in one hand and stepped into the water.
Dirt trickled into my collar from the bank, but I stood still. I could see the white blurs of her feet as she waded towards me. She moved with calm propriety: a large, plain, respectable woman from the nape of her neck down to her knees. She dropped her skirt. It floated and plastered itself to her shins, a changed, molded thing.
Martha moved more slowly as her skirt got soaked, but she was not ponderous, the way she was behind the counter at the store. When Martha said, "Don't lean on the glass," even the sheriff jumped back. Now she kicked at her hem, splashing herself a little and nearly slipping on a rock.
She stopped within breathing distance of me, at a spot where the water took a drop over rocks. Fish hid in the deep place behind the falling water, and I had been luring them onto my hook. Martha tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, squatted down and went over face first. I put my mouth against the tree bark to keep from calling out as she passed me, covered with white foam and scraping sand. She came up spitting and laughing, and grabbed the bank to hold herself under the falls.
I heard her say, "Frowsy," then laugh more. She sat in the stream bed with the water rushing down, rushing over her. The sky was blue against the hard edge of the bank. I opened my creel, seized a fish, and threw it back into the water. It skidded past her. She turned her face and another one slapped her neck, then washed on past. She got on her knees, sinking in the soft bottom, and fish after fish swam past her. Big silver, small brown.
Martha stood. I stepped into an open spot on the bank so she could see me reaching into the creel and tossing another fish into the water with a high arc. I straightened
the bow at the waist of my old calico, then tilted the creel towards Martha to show her that it was empty except for a few wet rushes on the bottom.
She stared at me, dripping water, as silver flashed over her feet. "Mrs. Linger, why are you throwing fish?" Her tone was cool. I felt like a kid caught with a pocketful of lemon drops I hadn't paid for.
I walked down the bank to her, wiping my hands on my skirt. I couldn't think of a good lie. The truth was, I wanted to add those shining bits of life to the picture Martha Moody was making with the water. I knew when a moment was ripe, which was how I came to be fishing when most decent women were getting supper on the table. "Why are you in the creek?"
Martha touched her glistening buttons. "For the poetry of the moment."
I nodded and reached to help her onto the bank. She grabbed my fingers so hard that I thought she was going to pull me into the water with her, but she just held on and dug her feet deeper into the mud. "I'm not ready to get out, Amanda Linger. Are you coming in?"
I pulled my hand away and stuck it in my dry pocket. I never rose to a dare. Martha stood there like she was a tree that had been bending the water around her since before Jesus walked in his own thunder and waves. I could see the outline of her corset through the fabric of her dress. I picked up my fishing pole. "I have to get to my milking."
Martha pulled one foot loose from the mud and held it under the fall to rinse it. I could smell the wet fabric of her skirt. Her hair was still knotted away from her face. "Milk.Yes." Her chin was soft and white. "Good day, then, Mrs. Linger."
I climbed the bank, inspired. "Good day."
After I left Martha Moody standing in the water, I hurried to the barn without going to the house. Miss Alice was waiting for me at the fence, bawling and looking at me with her yellow- flecked eyes. Her days had a strict rhythm, and she hated it when I was late.
I walked towards her with a cow swagger, swishing my pole behind me like a tail, bawling in answer. I opened the gate and she lowered her head to butt against my hip. "All right, Alice, yes, Pretty Alice, I know you're hungry."
I brought her a bucket of oats, then stood next to her with my hands in my armpits to warm them before I pulled up the stool. I rubbed my face against her hide. She smelled live and pungent.
Miss Alice gave more milk if I had a story to tell. We had been through most of the Bible, with special attention to mentions of kine and golden calves, as I squatted next to her mornings and evenings working her teats. I talked to help Miss Alice let her milk down. If she held back, it soured her bag for the next milking.
That night I told her the history of Martha Moody as I understood it from the conjectures of the ladies of the town.
Before she founded Moody, Martha had been a woman who liked a good apple pie with thick cream, but didn't have the grass to feed a cow. She had dried milk, but never cream, and she had suffered from grasshoppers and sparseness of joy.
Martha herself had never been sparse. She had been a fat city girl with red hair, acquainted with the Bible but also with the pleasures of ices and store-bought tarts. She had eaten turtle soup. She had dressed in white to shoot a bow and arrow, and had hit the mark. Her prowess in the fashionable sport of archery pleased her father, who was a lapsed Methodist with a gold watch fob and social ambitions. But Martha had met Wilbur Moody in a dry goods store, and he had come around the counter to hand her a bolt of cornflower blue cloth. She was married to him in a dress of that material in the spring. She didn't miss the grey city she left with Wilbur, toting dry goods, but she did miss cream. She liked the West. She nodded at the big sky. She asked nothing of the mountains, except that they keep her pointed straight away from the city and let her survive the pass. She came a good distance, then said it was enough. She was walking beside the wagon, singing to herself in a dry voice that had carried her across a lot of country. Wilbur was up on the seat, driving the oxen.They reached a creek.Water was news and a reason to stop. There were some small trees, maybe from a seed dropped by some other traveller. Martha looked at the sharp limbs and grey bark, and decided that this was enough to satisfy her need for company. She would winter here. Wilbur was gold-hungry and land-bored. He'd seen enough water in the East, although he filled every container he could find with the stuff.The rest of the party put their wagons in a circle, built fires, and spoke against leaving Martha for dead. But she had provisions, time to dig a sod house before the ground froze, and she had gone as far as she was willing to go. Wilbur knew better than to speak of love, but he did mention family honor. The sound of the water bordered the night.