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Cover Story: Imitation of Life

Author Madelyn Arnold draws parallels from her own life in creating a unique heroine

By Jessica Turner · September 5th, 2002 · Cover Story

Sometimes realizing there's a full moon outside can explain the whole day. Imagine a year of that feeling. Madelyn Arnold's novel A Year of Full Moons tackles these instances, the cyclic waxing of knowledge and maturity, the waning dependence and submission. It's rebirth, in more ways than one.

In the little-known rustic town of Summit, Ky., somewhere off back roads between "Loo-v'l" and Bowling Green, lives 15-year-old Josephine Butler. Jos is anything but similar to her grassroots people -- her open-mindedness and intellect assure that -- and a much more modern, yet at times typical, heroine than the average 1960s rabble-rouser.

Arnold knows her well. At times I think she might be her. Certain stories and characters from Moons came from Arnold's own experience verbatim, she says, others from nowhere. With that, I retract the assumed alias.

Arnold's life has had plenty of its own twists and turns. She herself grew up in the Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville, Ind., area.

Like Jos, she took active part in tending to her family and was intrigued by learning, especially biology. She developed her love of education by teaching writing at Indiana University and the University of Washington. (She got her Bachelor's degree in microbiology, botany and languages at Indiana University and earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Washington).

Working as a tech in hospitals during the '80s -- on the side while attending grad school and teaching -- she also put her knack for microbiology to use, particularly was when she accidentally stuck herself with a needle she'd used to draw blood on a "very sick young man." Six months later, she turned up HIV positive and has had full-blown AIDS since 1990.

Being physically unable to work any kind of strict schedule, her bi-monthly column at The Seattle Gay News and writing novels are now full-time priorities, although she's always written for herself anyway.

"I started writing stories, gay stories, for myself because I didn't see them anywhere. It never occured to me I would have an audience," says Arnold, who's now being studied in some college womens' studies programs. Like Jos, she does stay busy.

Jos' schedule is booked with helping her older sister raise their five siblings. All the while she's trying to enjoy some of the teen-age adventures she should be experiencing but can't, on account of her mother's postpartum/postmortem depression and her erratic and often violent father's low-income. Jos' sociological restrictions are important to Arnold.

"This girl thinks she's middle class," Arnold laughs, admitting that because she herself didn't have a Southern accent growing up she thought she was, too. "Anyone who's ever met Old Money, the wind of its leaving will knock them down."

This sort of wake-up call comes to Jos at all angles. Realizing who she is means coming to terms with her secret homosexual fantasies, which Arnold felt would be a fun aspect to explore in a setting with such a small-town mentality. Jos' short-lived affair with Peg, the town horse-trainer, was fun for her. Sadistic, but exciting all the same.

Jos has one hell of a year. She loses part of her hearing in an experimental homemade fireworks project gone awry; she's burned in a house fire (hers); her country teeters on the verge of war; Klan townies, local leaders and Civil Rights clash; and she's headed off to college.

Throughout the year, we see Jos grow up. She's had to. From the uncoordinated tomboy in April blossoms a civic-minded college-bound woman with a promising future.

"Jos is a hero," Arnold says. "She's loyal, responsible, bull-dogged and has aspirations. She respects people worth respect, and she seems to have an abundance of love."

In Josephine, Arnold proves that, even many moons ago, heroes still came full circle.



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