The Wartime Sisters in Need of a Peace Talk

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It’s Brooklyn in the early thirties, and Mr. and Mrs. Kaplan have brought forth two daughters who could not possibly be more opposite from each other.  Ruth is studious, brittle and envious of her younger sister, Millie, whose beauty and charm captivate everyone around her. 

Even as a child, Millie dashed Ruth’s hopes of quietly playing and reading together; instead, she rushed outside to join the games of hopscotch and jump rope which Ruth disdained.  Within the family, the girls quickly assume adversarial roles.

And so, as the U.S. readies for war and Ruth marries an engineer whose job will take them to Springfield, Mass., she is delighted to leave behind a floundering Millie, in love with a no-goodnik who possesses a violent temper.

In The Wartime Sisters (St. Martin’s Press), Lynda Cohen Loigman returns to themes that she explored in her first novel, The Two-Family House:  sibling rivalry, emotional scars that last a lifetime, keeping secrets, and sorrow. 

When Millie eventually makes her way to Springfield to live and work, it is evident that time has healed nothing between the sisters.  The author beautifully portrays Ruth and Millie’s inability to get past their childhood. Ruth is controlling and impatient while Millie is in hot water but hoping to please. They are so angry – a deep anger that their friends observe but cannot understand – that there seems to be no possibility of reconciliation.

 Much of the story is set against the backdrop of the Springfield Armory, where officers and their families live in spacious homes and the people who work in the munitions plant are relegated to modest housing.  Differences in social class and taste are well-drawn and create an interesting tension among the people who live in the community of the armory. 

For good measure, the plot involves a few villains who Ruth and Millie must overpower.  Yet even that challenge may not be sufficient to bring them together.

BookTrib spoke with the author about the tumultuous time period and relationship between the sisters.

BookTrib: You’ve said that as a child you loved watching the interaction between your mother and her sisters.  Can you elaborate on how that has inspired your work? 

Lynda Cohen Loigman: My happiest childhood memories are from holidays and other family gatherings where my mother, her two sisters and my grandmother were all together in one room. My mom was the most reserved of the three sisters, so it was usually my aunts who told the stories about when they were young.

Of course, there were trickier times too – times when the sisters were angry with each other and stopped speaking for a week or two. During those times, I would eavesdrop on my mom’s phone conversations, looking for clues as to whether everyone was getting along again. I was always happiest when they made up.

I think that watching the interactions among them taught me a lot about how different people can see one situation in multiple ways. There are so many sides to every story, and that is one of the themes I try to tackle in my writing.

With my mother’s family, there also seemed to be a lot of secrets that the adults kept from the children. Honestly, the secrets weren’t juicy ones – usually just small things my mom didn’t want to talk about or didn’t want me to know because she thought I was too young to understand.

If my mother and grandmother didn’t want me to know what they were talking about (which was often), they used to speak to each other in Yiddish so that I couldn’t understand. When I talk to my aunts now, I feel like I’m still learning bits and pieces about things that happened fifty years ago. Because of those experiences, the idea of writing about family secrets feels very natural.

BT: Ruth is one of the most emotionally stuck characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel!  How did you conjure her – a woman so stiff that she signed a letter to her sister with the word “sincerely”?

LCL: I have known people like Ruth in my life, so for me she wasn’t that difficult to imagine. I feel like people from that generation didn’t feel the same sense of entitlement so many people feel today to be happy and fulfilled in every aspect of their life. If their marriage was just alright, they dealt with it. If their job wasn’t a “dream job,” that was ok. They put more of an emphasis on simple necessities. If you had a roof over your head, food on the table, and your family was healthy, you really couldn’t complain.

Ruth is a woman who prefers not to engage all that much –  not with her co-workers and not even with her family. She is an introvert by nature, but she has also been made to feel “less than” from an early age because of the way she was treated by her mother and her peers.

As a result of these early experiences and disappointments, she makes certain choices in her adult life. The choices end up being selfish ones in many ways, but they come from a place of self-protection. Ruth has built up a fortress around herself, and it ends up shutting Millie out, even when Millie needs her most.

BT: Millie went from being the life of the party to a woman diminished by life. In that way, she became a far more sympathetic character than she was back in Brooklyn. Is it fair to say that, through her experiences, she was wiser than Ruth by 1943?

LCL: As a child, Millie leads a bit of a charmed existence because of her looks. For the most part, she doesn’t question why things in life come so easily to her, and she can’t see past her own experience to empathize with her sister. She whines if she is blamed for anything, and she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. After her parents die, however, she learns a lot of hard lessons.

When the two sisters are reunited, Ruth is living in a middle-class bubble of comfort and civility. Millie, however, has seen the seedier and darker side of life because of her ill-fated marriage. It takes a lot of courage for Millie to leave Brooklyn and join her sister.

She knows Ruth won’t be welcoming, and her arrival in Springfield (with a battered suitcase and almost no possessions) is a painful lesson in humility. Throughout the course of the story, Millie learns not only self-reliance and responsibility, but also how to be a good friend. Her friendship with Arietta is one of my favorite parts of the story because it truly shows her growth. I’m not sure if she’s wiser than Ruth by the end of the story, but I do think she has learned through experience about empathy and compassion.

BT: Family secrets can destroy people’s lives.  But are they sometimes necessary in order to enable us to move forward?

LCL: Sometimes secrets are necessary. We tell little white lies to protect people’s feelings all the time. The trick with family secrets, however, is that there are usually multiple people and generations involved.

Families have their own dynamics, and rumors or arguments that can turn into secrets ultimately affecting everyone for years to come. I think that the most useful thing is to learn to let go of past disappointments and grudges.

Whether it’s forgiving someone for something they have said or done, or making peace with the fact that your relationship with a certain relative is different from what you had hoped, acceptance is the only way to move forward.

BT: Having grown up near Springfield, Mass., you were very familiar with the area and had many childhood memories. Did you supplement your knowledge with research?  What were your sources for life at the Armory?

LLC: This book required a lot of research, much more than was necessary for my first novel. In the spring of 2016, I discovered the Armory’s ‘Forge of Innovation’ website and spent hours listening to recorded interviews with former armory employees and residents, many of whom were women. Their stories were so fascinating, and all so different. I started reading more about the Armory and scheduled my first visit to meet with the curator of the Armory museum, Alex MacKenzie.

Alex spent an entire day answering my questions and giving me a tour of the remaining grounds and buildings. I was able to go into the commanding officer’s house (Lillian’s home), as well as Building 5/6 (Ruth’s family home). I looked through old photographs, and began reading through the issues of The Armory Newsletter–a monthly pamphlet that was written, illustrated and published by employees from the fall of 1941 to August of 1943.

The pamphlets were a window into daily armory life: an article recapping an employee’s first day on the job, gossip pages listing engagements and weddings, sports pages detailing the scores for armory sports teams, hand-drawn cartoons poking fun at the war and spotlight pieces about employees with special talents and backgrounds.

With every edition I read, I was able to picture more clearly what it must have been like to work and to live at this remarkable place. During my second visit, I spent most of my time reading the newsletters and recording photographs of important pages.

I also looked through old editions of The Springfield Republican during the time period in which the book was set. It was incredibly helpful to see the headlines, the advertisements and the stories that were captivating Springfield residents at that time. There was a great piece about the Benny Goodman concert that I write about in my story. All of the research helped me shape my story and my characters. The book would not have been the same without it.

BT: You attended Columbia Law School and practiced law for eight years.  What inspired you to pursue writing?

LLC: I was a trusts and estates lawyer – a practice that deals mostly with individuals and families at a very anxious and stressful time. On the estate planning side, people are making decisions about who will take care of their children or their businesses if tragedy occurs.

On the estate administration side, people are dealing with the loss of a family member – a loss that is complicated by questions about not only money but choices family members may have made and kept hidden. There is a lot of emotion and sometimes drama. For obvious reasons, it was the only kind of lawyer I wanted to be.

Ultimately, however, a trusts and estates lawyer can’t just be a therapist or a friend – he or she needs to be a legal advisor and to have a strong knowledge of the tax laws. That was the part I could never get excited about. Tax law just never interested me enough. Eventually I gave up practicing.

I came up with the idea for my first novel when my daughter was six months old, but I didn’t start writing until more than ten years later. My mom passed away, I turned forty and I had the feeling that if I didn’t start writing then, I never would. I signed up for a class, and finally began writing The Two-Family House.

BT: Would you tell us about your next book?

LLC: The book I’m working on now feels very ambitious, and I really hope I can do it justice. It’s an old-fashioned story, rooted in folklore and set in the early 1900’s in the North End of Boston. It follows a trio of Jewish and Italian immigrants whose paths converge. I absolutely love it!

The Wartime Sisters will be available to purchase Jan. 22, 2019.

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ABOUT LYNDA COHEN LOIGMAN:

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda 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. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. The Wartime Sisters is her second novel. Learn more at www.lyndacohenloigman.com.

Claudia Keenan is a historian of education and independent scholar who writes about American culture. She blogs at www.throughthehourglass.com.

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