‘THERE ARE lies – told by both sisters – that threaten to destroy their fragile family ties.’.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Oh, sisters! One is beautiful, the other is not. One is subject to harsh parental criticism, one’s shortcomings are glossed over. One is emotional, one is calm. One is loving, the other resentful.
I think we’ve heard this one before. Yes, with a less talented author, The Wartime Sisters might have wandered into that infamous cliche zone. Fortunately, Lynda Cohen Loigman is a master storyteller and a skillful, sensitive writer, so no shopworn story here. Instead, this amazing novel will seduce you – as Loigman’s debut novel, The Two-Family House, did to me in 2016.
As you might imagine, the relationship between sister Ruth and Millie could best be described as rocky. At one time, they were living in the same house but not with each other. They even developed a routine to avoid one another.
“When Millie was in the living room, Ruth usually avoided it. When Ruth sat on the porch, Millie stayed inside. Millie kept clear of the kitchen while Ruth prepared dinner, and Ruth helped the girls with their homework while Millie did the dishes. They listened for each other’s footsteps, each heeding the heartbeat of the other.”
Although they had been born and raised in Brooklyn, the sisters changed their venue to Springfield, Massachussets, and both joined the iconic battle to crush the Axis powers. Their troubles with each other are placed in the context of the Western world’s desperate fight to smash fascism. Both women work at a huge weapons factory, where thousands of people are employed, dedicated to helping America defeat the Nazis and the Japanese.
But it’s not only about the two sisters. There also is a warm, caring wife of a career officer; a woman who cooks tasty food and sings with her soul; a bigoted wife of an Army officer; and a faithless husband, who disdains work and loves to drink excessively. Charges of arson and treason add to the explosive mix. So do social antisemitism, racism, intimidation and violence.
In the background to all this is America in the 1930s and 40s, and the author illuminates its wide social gaps. People live in homogeneous areas and rarely see the other side of those proverbial railroad tracks.
The author notes the difference between the part of town where Lillian, the commanding officer’s wife, lived and spent her time and the homes and hangouts of the workers.
“Federal Street – the road that separated the shops from where she lived – was not merely a street but the widest of chasms. Lillian kept mostly to the west side of the street, to the park-like sanctuary of Armory Square... But on the east side of the street, in Federal Square, the armory was a place free of fountains and privet hedges. It was there and at the Water Shops where the difficult work was being done, where thousands of women and men performed the most grueling tasks... Her trip to the other side of Federal Street was a journey to another world.”
Then there are lies – told by both sisters – that threaten to destroy their fragile family ties, and action and suspense as one of the sisters faces danger.
Millie had received a threatening letter from her husband.
“When she shut her eyes at night, she was haunted by Lenny’s image – by the scar on his face and the emptiness behind his eyes. Some nights sleep came, but it was always interrupted. She would wake in the shadows to increasing darkness: the shock of Lenny’s smirk when he waited for her on Federal Street, the threat behind the words of the letter he had written.”
It’s a volatile mix that comes to a head in a scene that at first appears to favor the bad guys.
One of Loigman’s greatest strengths is her ability to hint subtly that there is something more, something secret she hasn’t revealed about the sister’s relationships with each other. Just stick with me, she seems to imply, and I’ll let you know in good time what those secrets are.
Be patient, she does.
One caveat to my praise for this book: It jumps from scene to scene in non-chronological order, forcing the reader to stay alert to follow the action.
Not much to ask in exchange for such an unusual – and high quality – work. This is a book to savor.
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.
‘THERE ARE lies – told by both sisters – that threaten to destroy their fragile family ties.’ (Wikimedia Commons)
THE WARTIME SISTERS
By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin’s Press
285 pages; $27.99