Berkeley author Lucy Bledsoe has written a novel based on the life of her aunt, who died in a fire before Bledsoe was born.
Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Photo: Courtesy author

Lucy Jane Bledsoe is a Berkeley resident who has written five novels, two collections, and seven children’s books. Her new novel, A Thin Bright Line, which she will discuss Oct. 16 at 5 p.m. at Laurel Bookstore in Oakland, is based on the life of her aunt, who died in a fire when Bledsoe was 9. She later discovered they had many similarities.

Alison Bechdel, the author of Fun Home, described A Thin Bright Line as “gripping historical fiction about queer life at the height of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.” Berkeleyside recently caught up with Bledsoe to learn more about her novel.

Why did you write a novel about your aunt’s life?

In 1966, when I was 9 years old, my aunt and namesake, Lucybelle Bledsoe, died in an apartment fire. I remember her well; she was kind and funny. But details about her life were elusive. My dad, her brother, told me that she studied for, and passed, the bar exam, without ever going to law school. My mom told me that she was terribly independent and that even in the 1950s and 1960s she wouldn’t let men hold doors open for her. It frustrated me so much that I couldn’t know her better. Yet when I questioned my parents, I couldn’t get more than these few stories from them.

One day a few years ago I was telling a friend about my aunt and she suggested I Google her. Since Lucybelle died in 1966 and was just a farm girl from Arkansas, I didn’t expect to find anything. But I did: two items popped up on the internet. One was an obituary in the Journal of Glaciology. The other was a three-page entry in a new scholarly volume published by Routledge called The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to Mid-20th Century.

I was astonished. So was my father. He’d known she was “doing something about ice,” but had no idea she’d been an important player in seminal climate research. In fact, she was part of a team who, in 1966, pulled the first ever ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, resulting in a study that revealed the beginning of climate change. These two online documents told me where she’d worked, and I began contacting and interviewing her coworkers. My research expanded from there into public records and historical records, more interviews and travel to visit the places where she had lived and worked.

A photo of Bledsoe's aunt in her 20s. Photo: Lucy Jane Bledsoe
A photo of Bledsoe’s aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe, in her 20s. Photo: Lucy Jane Bledsoe

I knew that Lucybelle had been my father’s beloved sister (although he knew little about her life) and my beloved aunt and namesake, but I was amazed to hear how much my life paralleled hers. Like me, she wanted to be a novelist. Like me, she made her living as a science writer. Like me, she wrote extensively about the polar regions. Like me, she was gay. The more I learned about her extraordinary life – and the ways in which I was almost eerily following in her footsteps – the more I wanted to know.

The research journey was so exciting that I’ve included a chapter at the end of the novel about the uncovering of Lucybelle Bledsoe’s life.

Lucy Jane Bledsoe

What is the biggest challenge of writing historical fiction?

There are many. But a big one, and I think almost all writers of historical fiction grapple with this, is the temptation to include a lot of famous people from the era. So as I wrote draft after draft, I kept deleting people who really were gratuitous to the story. In the end, I did leave a few people who really are central to the story, including Henri Bader, my aunt’s boss, and a man considered by some to be the father of climate research. I also included references to Rachel Carson, because she’s one of my heroes, but also because her work was pioneering in environmental research. Lorraine Hansberry and Djuna Barnes both make cameo appearances. I included Tiny Davis and Ruby Lucas, two women who played in the wartime band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, and had a queer bar in midcentury Chicago.

What are the difficulties of writing about family?

It’s always fraught to write about family. Memory is famously subjective. And with family, people are particularly attached to their views of events. With this story, I had the advantage of family members having so few memories about Lucybelle. My father was reluctant in the beginning to share what he knew – due to grief and his general reticence both – but once I came to him with information I’d gathered from her friends and coworkers, he opened up more.

Truly the hardest part was my own emotional journey. Lucybelle is my namesake and we share so much in common. Having to imagine, in depth, the fire that killed her, the details of that, and the grief her partner must have felt, was devastating. Also, wishing so badly that I could have known my aunt. And also knowing I was too late – and only by a few years – to know my aunt’s life partner, who died in 2002.

What is the most surprising thing you learned about your aunt?

There was so much that left me, frankly, gobsmacked.

That she’d shot off the Arkansas farm at a very young age and moved to Greenwich Village. Many, many women of her generation escaped rural lives under the cover of WWII, but how did she even know about Greenwich Village?

That she was a key player in the development of a top secret (only recently declassified) project of building an entire city under the ice cap in Greenland. Camp Century was a Cold War project built with the aim of thwarting a Russian attack via the Arctic.

That she worked closely with Henri Bader, the principal scientist on the project who cared little for the military uses of their research and much for the knowledge they were gaining about climate.

That she had been fluent in Russian – presumably so she could read Russian ice research.

That, in spite of the McCarthy era dangers, and her high-security government position, she had women lovers.

A few lines at the end of her obituary, in the Journal of Glaciology, amazed and saddened me. The words were written by a coworker: “During the period of time she was associated with SIPRE (Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment) and CRREL (Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab), she personally edited almost every report printed in both the internal report series and outside-journal publications. Her editorial work extended far beyond grammatical corrections and adherence to style. She could spot incorrect equations, slipshod terms, and desultory sentences. One of her unique talents was her ability to recognize faulty logic even on very technical matters. Although you will not find her name listed as author or co-author of any research papers, we believe that she contributed a great deal to the field of glaciology.”

Bledsoe’s book launch is Oct. 16 at 5 p.m., at Laurel Bookstore, 1423 Broadway, Oakland. Sparkling beverages and 50s-era hors d’oeuvres will be served.

Bledsoe will be in conversation with Stanford historian Estelle Freedman on Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m. at Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco. She will also appear on Friday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. at Books Inc, 1481 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley.

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