“Them that’s born in wedlock are blessed by the Lord. Them that’s born out of wedlock are cursed as bastards.” So sputters the woman Molly Bolt calls Mom, revealing one of many secrets that the young girl will learn in the early pages of Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel, Rubyfruit Jungle. Some have to do with lineage, some with things that happen to grown-ups in war and behind closed doors. But most have to do with a dawning sexual awareness that leads Molly to realize, in a moment foreshadowed by foreskin, that her destiny lies with women and not men.

Book-smart and gifted at gaming a system in which she’ll always be an outsider, Molly explores that sexuality through her teenage years. She has a passionate relationship with a popular girl, cut short when her adoptive parents transplant her from Appalachia to Florida, then picks up the thread without dropping a stitch, courting a cheerleader. When Molly is 16, her father dies, but not before telling her, “People are silly about sex. But if you’ll take a word of advice from your old man—do it all you want but be quiet about it.”

Molly gets the first part right, but she’s not quiet enough, expelled from college when her relationship with a fellow coed is discovered. By that time, in the early 1960s, Molly isn’t shy of calling herself a lesbian, though Mom has uglier words for her. So it is that Molly finds herself in faraway New York, where, through adventures and misadventures, she enters film school and battles the misogyny of faculty and students alike—and, with a few encounters that Freud would have called “polymorphously perverse,” finally emerges in a liberatory world where she might make a life on her own terms.

Published by a small press after rejections by dozens of publishers, Rubyfruit Jungle was received not as a picaresque novel to shelve alongside Moll Flanders and Tristram Shandy but as a kind of softly “dirty” book in the Fear of Flying vein. Still, it went on to sell some 70,000 copies, enough to attract the attention of a major house that reissued the novel in 1975. It’s seen many printings and reissues since, hailed as a classic of feminist writing and a pioneering work of lesbian literature.

“My real life pretty much follows the book,” Brown told a reporter soon after it was published. Many years later, though, she told another writer that Rubyfruit Jungle wasn’t really a roman à clef, though it drew on aspects of her life and she hoped readers would see the humor in it—in short, just that picaresque element that figures in Molly’s journey. Despite the book’s reception, Brown has long rejected binary categories, writing in an introduction to the latest edition, “There are no lesbians or transgender people or fill in the blank. There are only people.…We’re everything and everybody.” Readers will find in it what they will—including, one hopes, things no longer seen as transgressive as they were half a century ago, and with plenty of resistance to things as they once were, told with a laugh.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.