Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Books: "The Wartime Sisters" On A Family Navigating Brooklyn In The 1930s

The Wartime Sisters
By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin's Griffin; paperback; $16.99; available today Tuesday, March 10

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. She practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband.

Loigman wrote her debut novel, The Two-Family House, while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. It was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. 

The Wartime Sisters is Loigman's new novel, and it is a tale of sisterhood, sacrifices, and identity set against the backdrop of Brooklyn in the 1930s and the Springfield Armory during World War II. With this novel, Loigman examines all the tenuous bonds of family and the ways in which our childhood roles define, and often haunt us, as adults. She also paints an evocative portrait of the life women led and the contributions they made on the home front during the early days of the second World War.

Ruth and Millie have never been close, starting when they were toddlers sharing a bedroom in their Brooklyn apartment, as teenagers navigating suitors and friends, nor as mothers with young children of their own. Ruth has always been too controlling and uptight for Millie's taste, and Ruth has always resented the attention Millie receives, not just from men, but their parents as well.

With World War II on the horizon, Ruth's husband is offered a position at the Springfield Armory. For Ruth, relocating to Massachusetts means a much-needed fresh start in a place where no one knows about her sister or her past. 

For Millie, Ruth's departure comes at the worst possible moment, as she is left behind in Brooklyn without family or friends, and with a negligent new husband who proves to be more volatile that anyone could have imagined.

The sisters are apart for five years, and with the war in full swing, tragedy forces them together again. Millie arrives in Springfield with a battered suitcase of shabby clothes to take a factory job as a "soldier of precaution." Ruth attends afternoon teas in elegant homes on the bucolic Armory grounds.

When an unwelcome figure from their past emerges, long-held secrets come to light, threatening the sisters' already fragile bond. All around them, the country they serve is at war, but Millie and Ruth are at war with each other.

THE WARTIME SISTERS: The Story Behind the Book
By Lynda Cohen Loigman

My favorite family stories have always been the ones my mother and her two sisters told about their 1950's Brooklyn childhood. Those tales had such an impact on me that they inspired the setting for my first novel, The Two-Family House. But not all of those family stories were set in New York. During my mother's last years of high school, her family left Brooklyn for the much smaller city of Springfield, Massachusetts. Their move was always described in the language of loss. Compared to Brooklyn, their new city was colorless and deserted. Where were the crowds? The knish carts? The stores? My grandmother and her daughters were certain that they had been dragged to the end of the earth. Their relatives from New York visited only once a year, and never stopped rreferring to Springfield as "the country." They brought cans of tuna fish with them on the train because they were afraid they might starve.

My mother stayed behind in Brooklyn for a full year or more in order to graduate with the rest of her class. Although I asked often, she never said much about the time she spent living with her aunt and uncle. She refused to talk about what it was like to watch her family leave, to know that her home was no longer clearly defined. After graduation, she joined her younger sisters in Springfield. Not too long afterwards, at the age of eighteen, she met my father at a dance and the two of them married. My brother and I were raised in Springfield at first, and then in the neighboring suburb of Longmeadow.

As a child, I was exceedingly proud of what I believed to be my mother's exotic Brooklyn upbringing. My father - born and raised in Western Massachusetts - seemed to know every Jewish person in our town. He knew all of their family histories and they knew his. But no one knew my mother, and she liked it that way. No matter how many years she lived in Massachusetts, she never stopped thinking of herself as a New Yorker.

When I first began piecing together my second novel, I wanted to write about sisters in transition - sisters who had left their home and were forced to begin again. The details of my mother's arrival in Springfield had always been hazy, and I longed for a greater understanding of her past experiences. I wanted to capture what the shift must have felt like, not just for her, but her younger sisters as well. No one made my mother laugh the way her sisters did, but there were arguments too - weeks and months and years when one sister refused to speak to another. As with most families, each sister fulfilled a specific role in the greater dynamic - roles I could identify, but did not know the origin of. My mother was the worrywart, Barbara was the optimist, and Shelley, the youngest, was always "the fun one." Every time they got together,the same patterns emerged, patterns that became questions I wanted to explore: Can we ever break free from the roles assigned in childhood? Do those who have known us the longest really know us the best? Can our youthful grudges ever truly be forgiven?

I decided to set my novel in Brooklyn and Springfield, the same two cities where my own family had lived. Although I intended to mention the Springfield Armory only in passing, a little bit of research planted unshakeable seeds that bloomed into the backdrop of the book. I began listening to the oral histories of former female employees and residents, most of whom had worked at the Armory during World War II. They were lathe operators, truck drivers, teenagers, and mothers. Some were women who had lived on the grounds as children, and one was the wife of a former Commanding Officer. I learned that what I had envisioned as nothing more than a giant weapons factory was actually a bucolic campus filled with elegant homes and manicured gardens. The Springfield that existed during the early 1940's seemed a far richer setting than the one my mother's family inhabited, and I wanted my story to benefit from that history. I decided to push my narrative back twenty years.

After multiple visits to what is now left of the Armory, I was struck by the contrast between the two worlds it contained: Armory Square, filled with charming buildings and rose arbors; and Federal Square, where the factory buildings were located. Like the two sides of the Armory, the two sisters in my story - Millie and Ruth - are opposites. Ruth is the intellectual - dependable but aloof, and tired of living in the shadow of her beautiful and overly emotional younger sister. For as long as Ruth can remember, Millie has received special treatment because of her appearance. Young men throw themselves at her, and her flaws are forgiven. Eventually, Ruth finds a sweetheart of her own, and when her husband Arthur is offered a job at the Springfield Armory, she can't wait to leave Brooklyn and start her life over. In the meantime, Millie is dating a man her parents deem unsuitable, and their mother decides she should move to Springfield with Ruth. Anxious for a fresh start away from her sister, Ruth becomes desperate to keep Millie in Brooklyn. After tragedy strikes the family, the rift between the two sisters widens and Millie is left particularly vulnerable.

When the story opens, the sisters have been estranged for five years. Having lost her young husband in the early days of the war, Millie travels to Springfield to live with Ruth's family. But their reunion is not an easy one, as long-held resentments continue to fester. Ruth seems to have everything, while Millie carries little more than the clothes on her back. After an unwelcome figure from the past emerges, it is unclear whether the sisters' bond will be strong enough to survive. All around them, the country they serve is at war, but Millie and Ruth are at war with each other.

Although I am not lucky enough to have a sister of my own, I've always keenly observed my mother and aunts. Their interactions were complicated - full of ebbs and flows, high points and low. Watching them together taught me about loyalty and love, and it is my great hope to offer readers an intimate story of both the comfort and the chaos that sisterhood can be: messy misunderstandings, arguments, and grudges, but also forgiveness and acceptance of each other's flaws. By setting my story at the Springfield Armory in the early 1940's, I hope also to highlight the strength and tenacity of women on the home front who worked to further our country's cause, the "soldiers of production" who gave their time and energy as women's ordnance workers. With any luck, The Wartime Sisters will provide both a satisfying story of family secrets and sisterhood, and a glimpse into what life was like for women living and working at the Armory in the early days of the second World War.

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