In the Land of Two-Legged Women
a novel by Huey Helene Alcaro

Print: 978-1-77133-241-5
ePub: 978-1-77133-242-2
PDF: 978-1-77133-244-6

280 Pages
May 25, 2016
New Fiction All Titles Novel

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In the Land of Two-Legged Women a novel by Huey Helene Alcaro

Finalist, 2017 International Book Awards
Women's Issues

At the onset of puberty girls’ right legs are sawed off in Ramprend’s Beautification Ritual. In this dystopian novel, female stumps are desirable to men. Solanj’l — ’l denoting one-leg — hates her inability to move freely and makes a wooden leg to enable her to walk, or step-drag, rather than be rolled in a chair or swing along on props. It’s an extraordinary thing to do because no artificial limbs exist in Ramprend. Her husband sees commercial possibilities in his wife’s invention and begins producing Glom’s Glamor Legs. The ability to move more or less on two legs, no matter how uncomfortably, opens new ways of thinking for the women. Solanj’l and Deba’l, wife of Hunak, Minister Second Only to the First, therefore start gatherings of women, ostensibly to discuss Pleasure Ways with the wooden legs for the purpose of increasing husband happiness. Nevertheless, husbands are not always paramount in their thoughts. When items start disappearing in Ramprend and it is learned that women who live in the mountains outside the city have two legs and operate independently, Solanj’l and some of her friends are determined to put an end to the “Beautification,” no matter the cost.

"Energetic prose, vivid description, a page-turner plot, this debut novel grabs the reader by the throat and doesn’t let go until the heart-thumping climax. In the Land of Two-Legged Women brings a fully realized dystopian society to life through the considerable imaginative forces of author Huey Helene Alcaro. In Ramprend, at the onset of puberty, girls must submit to the horribly disfiguring Beautification Ritual to satisfy the pleasure of their future husbands. Led by the fiery and beautiful Solanj’l, the women of Ramprend revolt to reclaim their bodies and their lives. From the first Gatherings of the women, ostensibly to discuss ways they can further pleasure their husbands, to the final faceoff in which the men threaten to storm the Great Hall in which the women have barricaded themselves, this battle of social change bellows a triumph of the human spirit. Both in love and war the stakes are high and not everyone can win. Creating a new society means accepting what must be relinquished as well as what is gained."

 —Cecelia Frey, author of Moments of Joy and The Long White Sickness

"Huey Helene Alcaro's novel, In the Land of Two-Legged Women, is tough, shocking and necessary, an allegory reminiscent of fellow SFnal feminists Joanna Russ, Monique Wittig, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Alcaro keeps us turning pages, AND thinking!"

—Ursula Pflug, author of The Alphabet Stones and Motion Sickness

“I cannot imagine a Women's Studies classroom without this dystopian novel. Like Margaret Atwood and Charlotte Perkins GIlman, Alcaro exposes the misogyny and concomitant rage beneath the veneer of tradition. This slim allegory dares us to look away from the full-frontal horror of what history has wrought for women. I could not stop reading, cannot stop thinking about the gauntlet this bold gem of a text has thrown down. Brave, compelling, and long overdue. “

—Donna Decker, author of Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You

In the Land of Two-Legged Women

Huey Helene Alcaro has worked on a farm, taught adults in inner city Newark, New Jersey, and taught and directed the Women's Center at Montclair State University, NJ. Her fiction has appeared in several North American journals and was a finalist for the 2011 Glass Woman Prize. She lives in Roseland, NJ, and blogs at hueyhelenealcaro.com. In the Land of Two-Legged Women is her debut novel.

The revolution will be led by women with wooden legs
Huey Helene Alcaro's debut novel has legs -- wooden legs
reviewed by Clarissa Fortin, rabble.ca - May 5, 2016
http://rabble.ca/books/reviews/2016/05/revolution-will-be-led-women-wooden-legs

"They were going to cut off her leg."

Huey Helene Alcaro's debut novel In the Land of Two Legged Women begins with this terrifying pronouncement.

"It was a blue and golden day, so beautiful it hurt and they were going to saw off her leg."

In the Land of Two Legged Women is a dark and thoughtful fable about religious fervor and gender roles run amok, with surprising moments of humour and warmth. It's a dystopia novel in the tradition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but with a speculative social structure and world all its own.

The people of Alcaro's fictional city Ramprend are isolated, cut off from outsiders save for occasional visits from raiding mountain people. They worship the great god Ploch, and live strictly within the bounds of a gender and class system, which seems a bit like Victorian England gone haywire.

"Legs like vases? Penises? Long, long penises?"

When women come of age in Ramprend they undergo a Beautification Ritual and lose one leg to a saw. They're left dependant on men for everything. Rich women are rolled around in chairs, carried on platforms, and stacked in carriages like furniture. Poor women workers are left to dangle in harnesses or drag themselves around on crutches.

The ludicrousness of this premise hit me early on: How can this society sustain itself without unimpaired female labour? How can Ramprend afford to saw of the legs of all women? Why would it do such a thing?

But I stopped asking these questions the longer I read. I realized that this absurdity is a crucial part of Alcaro's alternate world -- it's an extension of the gender-related absurdity women have faced throughout history and still face today.

Alcaro grounds the madness of this world through her self-aware protagonist Solanji'l, an intelligent high-class woman, who is good with woodworking. Solanji'l decides to dismantle this strange patriarchy from the inside out through a simple invention: wooden legs for women.

It's through Solanji'l that the reader learns what it's like to live with one leg -- both the emotional pain of maiming and the practical struggle of movement. The scenes where she staggers around the room trying to use the wooden leg are exciting, and surprisingly funny.

When considering how to shape the wooden legs she's creating Solanji'l wonders what will be most pleasing and non-threatening for men. "What would amuse men?" she wonders. "Legs like vases, tree trunks, table legs? Penises? Long, long penises?"

Solanji'l finagles her way into this closed off world by convincing a priest to let her start a women's group where they'll discuss "pleasing their husbands." We meet Petra'l, Janka'l, Morgani'l and Deba'l, women in whom Solanji'l recognizes kindred spirits. It's good world building on Alcaro's part -- through these communities of women I could catch glimpses into the different kinds of marriages and lives of Ramprendian women.

Complex women populate Ramprend

The relationships between these women are the core of Alcaro's story. Her female characters are distinct and memorable: Petra'l, who, despite the loss of her leg, takes great pleasure in sex, Debra'l, whose husband actually considers his wife's opinion and allows her to run the house, and Phylli'l who has drunk the Ramprendian Kool-Aid and staunchly campaigns against any kind of female liberation.

Phylli'l is presented as an example of a self-hating woman, "the apotheosis of inner loathing." While this is true, I found her part of the story particularly interesting for another reason: in a patriarchal society where women's voices aren't supposed to be heard she "assaults" her listeners by speaking in a "piercing register." She opposes the idea of women having legs even when men support it.

Sure, she's still a "villain" in the context of the story because she gets in the way of our protagonists plans, but I found her fascinating. She leads a kind of rebellion against powerlessness by vocally expressing the opinion that women ought to be powerless -- she's a self-contradictory character and I think Alcaro did well to include her as a counterpart to Solanji'l.

Revolutions are entertaining. It was satisfying to watch Alcaro's women outwit and outlast their oppressors, gain some measure of autonomy, and create things for themselves. When the women organize a talent show and begin to create their own songs and performances for the first time in their lives I was genuinely moved.

However, the climax is a bit surprising for this compassionate and humane piece of work. Alcaro leaves readers with a moral quandary that is never fully addressed by the author.

What punishment befits those who perpetuate systems of oppression? It's a question worth asking, and it could have been explored further from Solanji'l's point of view.

The conclusion struck a similar chord for me. While ambiguity can be effective in speculative narratives, it seems like the wrong questions were left unanswered, while other loose ends were tied up too easily. Mysteries go unsolved, relationships go unexplored and everything is wrapped up too quickly.

World of Ramprend leaves readers wanting more

In The Land of Two Legged Women is a promising start for a first-time novelist. It's an emotionally moving and empowering piece of work that appealed to me as a woman and a feminist: I loved watching a marginalized group of women change their situation through their own collective strength.

The narratives can be connected to to social morays we're still trying to shake off: the idea that women don't feel sexual pleasure in the same way men do, that men desire helpless women, and most resoundingly the idea that men have a right to control female bodies.

Ramprend might be a one-time experiment for Alcaro, but if she were to write about it again I would gladly read more. She has created an interesting, but incomplete dystopian scenario, one that is in many ways relevant to women's experiences today.

Chapter 1:

NO

They were going to cut off her leg. They were going to cut off her leg. They were going to cut off her leg. She ran screaming through the house.

NO.

She woke screaming. Glom was running his hands on her. NO. She propelled herself from the bed and crashed to the floor, hitting her forehead on the wall. The next day she’d have a lump that would darken to an ugly purple and fade through green into yellow as it receded. Glom was reaching for her. She moved back using her hands and one leg. Scrambled toward the corner, like a scurrying insect.

Chapter Two: Beautification

Sometimes she’d let herself fall into remembering. Sometimes she couldn’t stop it, remembering the days before her leg was sawed off and the ’l was added to her name, denoting woman, one in possession of one leg. She remembered running, running across her grandfather’s field, the grass soft under, around her feet, Spirry running with her, his body wiggling even as he ran, little legs pumping. She’d stop and pick him up, hold his silky almost black fur to her face. He’d keep wiggling. A joyous companion in running, running, running across fields, down streets, around and around the patios surrounding the house. Her running, jumping, tearing along friend. Oh, how she loved him.

What would he do, feel when she could no longer run with him? She sometimes wished her father had not given him to her. Then there wouldn’t be the loss of him. And she would lose him in some measure because she would not be able to run with him. She couldn’t think about it; not on a day of perfect blue, green, white beauty. No, not on such a day. So many days to think about not running any more. So many days when there would be no running. Nor walking.

“Come on, Spirry, let’s run!” Solanj and her best little playmate would take off once again across the field, racing, racing, racing in pure delight of being alive. Joy.

Itching. Cramping. Itching. Hurting. In the thigh, the calf—and the desire to run her hand down her leg, just for the knowing of herself. There was one leg to touch, but she wanted to feel both. She needed to scratch the itch, rub the cramp, but there was nothing to rub, to scratch. Nothing. There was nothing. Her friend, Toka, who lost her leg to the saw several months before Solanj had gone mad with the pain in the leg that was no longer hers. When she was eight she’d fallen out of a tree, piercing her right leg on a broken limb as she dropped. It had bothered her in cold weather. Lying in the disposal pits it drove her wild. She twisted and turned and screamed that one of the cats from the mountains had come to the pits and was eating her leg. Its teeth were ripping into her thigh, her calf, her foot.

Some women lived with pain all their lives. A grimace would cross the face for no apparent reason. The lost leg had appeared once again. A ghost that cried out in itching and cramps.

Solanj had loathed the Beautification Ritual as far back as she could remember. All girls feared it and cried before and after the leg was sawed off but they went on, doing what was expected. Few tried to prevent it. Solanj did. She asked, begged her mother, Luranj’l, and father, Hect, to not have it done to her. At first they smiled and thought she was being a nervous little girl, then realized she was serious. They kept a servant with her at all times, even when she slept, knowing she might try to run away. Her woman’s blood came and the day was set for removal. She only pretended to take the drug that was to make her senseless for the three days prior to The Beautification. On that day she’d thrown it across her room and run screaming out of the house and down the street. It was a golden and blue day, so beautiful it hurt and they were going to saw off her leg. It took three servants to catch and carry her back to her waiting parents, the parents deeply embarrassed by her unseemly behavior. The drug was forced down her throat.

She said nothing after her leg was sawed off, flung into the bloodstained wooden bucket and carried to the wagon that would transport it to the pits. She continued to say nothing as the weeks went by. She held Spirry and stared at people, her mouth a straight, tight line, her eyes hard. Her mother tried to cajole, then threatened with various restrictions. Solanj’l looked at her in a way that said there was nothing anyone could do that was worse than what had been done.

Her father prided himself on his reserve and dignity but finally yelled, “What is wrong with you? All females do this. It is natural. It is what the god wants. It is what we all want. Why must you act as if something bad has been done to you? Without Beautification you would never have a man. I do not know what is wrong with you.”

Casanj’l, her older sister with flirty eyes and giggly little girl ways, told Solanj’l she was being dumb. Every girl knew this was needed to get a husband. Casanj’l lowered her lushly-lashed eyes, turned pink and moved her shoulders this way and that, signaling sweet, docile, malleable for every man who came into the house.

Solanj’l did not wiggle and twinkle for the men. She merely flicked glances at them with her rage-filled eyes. When no one would see, she cried. She put her head against Spirry’s soft little body, rocked back and forth and cried. Spirry licked her tears and whimpered.

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