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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005 04:09 pm

Remembering the Levee

Latest by Martha Miller revives tales of Springfield’s fabled seedy section

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Tales from the Levee By Martha Miller, Harrington Park Press, 2005, 168 pages, $16.95.
Martha Miller’s new book, Tales from the Levee, has its origins in interviews Miller conducted with the lesbians and drag queens who frequented a district of Springfield now vanished into history. The Levee — Fifth Street between Jefferson and Washington streets — still holds a notorious reputation among longtime Springfield residents, but what many people don’t realize is that the Levee supported a gay community. In addition to numerous straight bars and massage parlors, the neighborhood was home to four gay bars in its two-block area. Drag queens who came from as far away as St. Louis (cross-dressing was illegal in Missouri) heightened the district’s drama factor and helped the Levee maintain its legendary, less-than-savory status. Tales from the Levee, though based on this seldom-discussed aspect of the city’s past, is not presented as local history. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Levee is a collection of fictional pieces that fit together to form a novel. Each chapter represents a year in the life of the Levee, a chronicle of the end of an era. The 12 stories in Miller’s collection span the years 1965 through 1976. The tale begins with the demolition of the old Orpheum Theater, the first step of urban renewal that would, bit by bit, see the Levee fade into oblivion. Miller creates a memorable cast of characters, a tight-knit community of friends and rivals. Her female characters, having accepted who they are, struggle with their individual problems, trying to cope with how they are seen by the rest of the world. Comic relief is often supplied by the men, who are, more often than not, drag queens. Amid the laughter, however, the reader senses the thin veneer of bravado over vulnerability. Homophobia in the heartland is nothing new, and Miller relates a disturbing and suspenseful story of a killing that today would be called a hate crime. Miller states in her foreword that she wanted to create a “gay mythology rather than a gay history,” and she has succeeded. Miller is a storyteller, not an historian. In her previous novels, she proved that she can create believable, sympathetic characters. The same is true of Tales from the Levee. Anyone who has ever been on the outside looking in will feel at home here. One need not be gay to identify the central theme of the book, set forth by one of the characters: “Being different takes a special kind of courage.”
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