Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the story of a child-woman diverted from Pentecostal ministry in working-class northern England by discovering she loved a girl, was one. The novel won the Whitbread Award in 1985, became a TV series, and is included within the English high school curriculum.
Winterson has returned to some of the same ground in a 2011 non-fiction exploration of what it meant to be an adopted child, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what Winterson's adoptive mother asked her when she learned of her first girlfriend.
Young Jeannette had what seems, from the outside, a dreary and violent childhood. Even if the family who adopted her had been more functional, life in working-class Accrington, near Manchester, was hard. Frequently they were hungry.
But the couple who took home this baby wasn't functional at all. Her adoptive mother -- always referred to as "Mrs. Winterson" -- was plain crazy and broken. She ruled the family, imposing on them all her misery and fear through irrational petty cruelties. She was utterly unready for the arrival of a baby she had not borne.
The young Jeannette found two consolations: the pubic library and her parent's Pentecostal Church. The former offered access to the foundation for her future profession:
The Church was one of those institutions that those of us in the comfortable reaches of English-speaking culture look down upon. Winterson's picture of its life is fascinating, gentle, and reflective.
I like that: "the church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility." It seems a good vocation for any organization whose central precepts cannot be proved by the benchmarks available to a scientific culture.
This same nurturing church subjected Winterson to a violent exorcism and cast her out because she loved another young woman.
I'm not going to summarize further. This is very much a book for anyone whose life has included adoption, from any side of the exchange. I've seen adopted and adopting friends wrestle with conundrums and demons I would never have appreciated, coming as I do from a very conventional family and lineage.
What I come away with is an impression of Jeanette Winterson's mature kindness. For all the rage and pain her adoptive mother's demons visited on her, she concludes: