While on holiday this year, I was pinged by Calgary playwright Natalie Meisner about a book that had just come out, about a rural gay couple living in New Brunswick—more than 100 years ago. Meisner, originally from the Maritimes, explained, “I just found this [story] so lovely, uplifting….” That is how Len & Cub: A Queer History ended up on my books-to-read list.
Through an amazing find in the New Brunswick archives, authors Meredith J. Batt and Dusty Green delve into the lives of Leonard Keith and Joseph “Cub” Coates and their long-term relationship in the early 20th century. Len, an amateur photographer, created a photo documentary of his life with Cub. The images show a striking intimacy, and authors Batt and Green start with the refreshing premise that Len and Cub are in a relationship. This queer lens informs the incredible detective work that follows. Through assiduous research, the authors uncover many more details about the men, their families, and their life events. Impressively, Batt and Green are frank about what they cannot know but still weave a tapestry of their subjects’ lived experience in relatively unknown terrain for queer studies.
The book is beautifully designed with archival photos of Len and Cub given pride of place. Batt and Green write intelligently and accessibly about their subjects. The text struggles with the lives of Len and Cub gracefully and avoids presentism—the impulse to judge the past by present-day standards. However, the authors reflect on how this old story connects to contemporary queer life in New Brunswick, including what Len and Cub mean to them personally.
Many queer historians are acutely aware of how sexual and gender identity concepts have changed over time. Len and Cub were secretive about their love, but this was largely divorced from politics. The men would never have had a sense of being part of an equity seeking minority community. For modern-day queers, it’s hard to imagine what that would be like.
I enjoyed this book immensely and was delighted to learn that Batt and Green have also founded the Queer Heritage Initiative of New Brunswick. This archival and educational initiative will collect further queer histories of 2SLGBTQ+ people; I hope that means future books from these authors.
One can find Len & Cub in stock at Pages on Kensington or Shelf Life Books in Calgary. Support local independent books stores!