Kingdom of Women
Rosalie Morales Kearns
Publisher: Jaded Ibis Press
Publication Date: December 2017
Rosalie Morales Kearns is of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent. She is the founder of Shade Mountain Press, the author of the magic-realist story collection Virgins and Tricksters, and the editor of the short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. Kearns has a B.A. in theology from Fordham University and an MFA from the University of Illinois.
sequester the men
Throughout history, the sight of women warriors has terrified men. From legends of the Amazons to Apache and Opata women who fought against European invaders, and most recently, Kurdish women who engage in battle unafraid, men have spoken in tones of hushed wonder at women who can pick up a weapon and advance.
Yet we still haven’t got rid of men. Every dystopian novel describes in great detail why we should, and every utopia somehow softens and rounds their edges to fit into a society of equals. A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is probably the best-known of these dystopias, in which fertile women become slaves to old military men trying to reproduce. Sheri S. Tepper’s novel, The Gate to Women’s Country, portrays a society in which men and women live as separate tribes, mingling only long enough to procreate.
Rosalie Morales Kearns’ novel, Kingdom of Women, falls somewhere in between. Rather than the portrait of a warrior, it is the hagiography of a saint born in the near future, Averil Parnell. First-time novelist and Shade Mountain Press publisher, Kearns is well-prepared to explore this subject, a product of Catholic schools with a degree in theology.
Saints need to suffer, and Averil’s list of tragedies starts with being in the first class of women set to be ordained as Catholic priests, only to have her classmates gunned down by an assassin. Averil alone survives because she was late to the ceremony, indicative of her cruel luck throughout the book.
A broken person, originally a scholar, she continues to irritate the Catholic hierarchy, mostly by her indifference to it. While posted to a former monastery, St. Anthony’s, and its adjacent chapel, she takes up with a man named John Honig, a classic woman-hater who enjoys seducing women with his extremely good looks. Ostensibly there to study the chapel for his architecture degree, he and Averil share a love/hate relationship based mostly on sex. When he disappears, Averil feels abandoned. She does not know that he has been warned off by a professional assassin, Catherine, who is in the vanguard of a nationwide rebellion by women called The Revolution. The official government has become increasingly repressive, and the less Averil knows about the rebellion, Catherine reasons, the safer she will be.
Soon, North Dakota breaks off as a separate nation, Erda, and a by-then defrocked Averil makes her way there to support the cause. Other rebellions break out across the globe, and funds pour in from all over to support the women of Erda.
Throughout the book, Averil wavers between the appearance of a holy fool and a grounded spiritual leader who inspires others with her clear-minded advice and selfless compassion. She spends much of the book wandering around, somewhat incoherent, unsure of her spiritual status after leaving the priesthood. She hears voices, usually the spirits of the monks of St. Anthony’s, chanting. She offers to serve food in a cafeteria. She befriends cats and dogs. Averil does not know if she can channel the power she once felt, but there is a wonderful turning point about half-way through the book when she spontaneously provides Extreme Unction to a dying woman, with a Protestant minister as her skeptical witness. Shortly after, Averil performs a non-gendered Mass, in the same manner, invoking the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier – providing spiritual nourishment to people starving for recognition and comfort.
There is no doubt that spiritual leaders possess a way to channel holiness to the rest of us. As Kearns shows, they train for it. They study and long for it. Much as we would like to have individual relationships with a higher being, worship with a spiritual leader seems more effective. As Averil leads a group in meditation, she asks, “How could a thoroughly benign deity create a world in which people had to kill to survive and suffer to love?” This is one of the central questions of the novel.
Averil’s friend and guardian through much of the book, the warrior, and cold-blooded assassin Catherine is purely a political and military creature, completely indifferent to spirituality outside of her laser-like focus on strategy, survival, and keeping Averil alive. She is the yang to Averil’s yin. Only late in the novel does she begin to have an inkling of the interior world in which Averil spends much of her consciousness, one in which the unseen is as important as the seen.
Throughout the book are sprinkled quotes from women saints, feminist leaders, and revolutionaries through the ages. Averil is named after a 7th Century British saint. “Have women no country?” mused Angelina Grimké in 1837. Other favorites include Hadewijch of Antwerp and Christina Mirabilis: “Those things which God has ordained in me are beyond understanding.” After the Revolution, a new sort of time is kept, Anno Mirabilis, starting with the date of the Revolution as Year One.
Back to those pesky men: While there are male allies throughout the book, the women of Erda decide to sequester the men they capture until – whenever. A few are given access to guest cottages, so that women who are traveling between communities can have sex with them, treating these men much as men once treated women, as disposable objects. Reproduction is through artificial insemination, with men competing to donate in hopes that their descendants will be able to live as free men. A form of parthenogenesis is also practiced, taking the DNA from one egg and placing it in another. Erda does not seem to have traditional families with male and female partners, and if there are households of other design, they are never described. Both dystopias and utopias about gender dysfunction gravitate to communal living as the ideal, but I find that unrealistic. A writer who has explored this topic at length, Samuel Delany, portrays an ideal family in Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand as one in which family member is by choice and adoption, not just by birth.
As events unfold in the novel, we come to understand that moral deficiencies ascribed to men may well affect women as well. Power is corrupting, and for all the communal forgiveness, redemption, and transformation described, revenge and regret affect all of us. Granted, mandatory vasectomies would do a lot to curb testosterone-fueled crime, but not all of it.
Kingdom of Women at first seemed an odd title to me. Why not the Queendom of Women? But then I realized that the kingdom of the title is not of this earth. This is a timely book, one in which women are so fed up with the cruelty and waste of men that they finally take matters into their own hands. It’s hard not to draw parallels with the thousands of women now calling out men who have used their positions of power to exploit and degrade others.
The Roman playwright Terence once wrote, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”, or “I am human, and I think nothing which is human is alien to me.” Like all good speculative fiction, the subject is the human condition, and Kearns gives us a bird’s eye view of one possible future and one woman’s search for God in a flawed, but possibly redeemable, world.
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as numerous short stories, essays, and reviews. She teaches creative writing at workshops and MFA programs, including the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and the Antioch University low-residency program, and is a co-founder of The Raven Chronicles, a magazine of art, literature, and the spoken word that has published for over twenty-five years. Her most recent book is The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, from the University of Washington Press. More at www.kathleenalcala.com