By Leslie Lindsay
Captivating and stunning examination of family dysfunction, disharmony, sisterhood, and WWII in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s THE WARTIME SISTERS.
I had such admiration for Ms. Loigman’s debut, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE (2016), and was delighted to see that she chose to continue her writing journey into historical fiction; she truly shines when exploring complicated familial relationships, and it makes for such authentic writing.
Now, Lynda returns with her second novel, THE WARTIME SISTERS (St. Martin’s Press, Jan 22 2019) and it’s every bit as good–if not better–than her first. This is a mesmerizing tale of sisterhood, lies, betrayal, rivalries, motherhood, withheld communication, even religion.
Told in alternating POVs with distinct places and time periods (1930s Brooklyn; 1940s Springfield, MA), the voices truly sing.
Ruth and Millie have never been close–not as toddlers sharing a bedroom in their Brooklyn apartment, not as teenagers navigating suitors and school (Ruth was the homely but smart sister and Millie the less-studious gorgeous sister), and certainly not as mothers with young children of their own. Ruth has always been the ‘responsible older sister’ who had to shoulder the burden of many of life’s struggles while Millie was doted upon and wanted by everyone. Ruth has always resented the attention Millie garnered and so when she married, she was happy to get away from her sister.
With WWII on the horizon, Ruth’s husband is offered a job at the Springfield Armory. Life is great. They have a home, manicured lawns, friends, book clubs, twin daughters, and a great distance from Millie. But that all changes when Millie–three years younger and five years estranged–writes Ruth with news that her husband is gone.
Loigman’s pacing is mesmerizing, her descriptions spot-on; you can tell she spent a significant time researching the Springfield Armory, the time periods she worked in, plus the family dynamics were so carefully and thoughtfully rendered. Subtle references to Jewish customs are mentioned and this so enhanced the storytelling, making me feel so much closer to the characters.
Perfect historical fiction with a satisfying ending; I loved it.
Please join me in welcoming Lynda back to the author interview series.
Lynda, I am in awe. I started THE WARTIME SISTERS on vacation and didn’t want it to end—the story or the vacation! I think it was the family dynamics you so deftly portrayed. And the swift pacing. Can you tell us a bit about your spark for this book?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
Hi Leslie! Thank you for having me – I’m so excited to talk about THE WARTIME SISTERS with you!
This novel became a very different book from the one I originally set out to write. Although I always intended to write about sisters, I was planning to set the novel in a much later time period. My first wave of inspiration came from the move my mother’s family made in the early 1960’s from Brooklyn, New York, to Springfield, Massachusetts. Although my mother was only eighteen years old when she moved, I’m not sure she ever considered Springfield her home. To her, New York was the center of the universe, and Springfield might as well have been the North Pole. Her sisters and parents moved a few months before she did because she wanted to finish her senior year of high school in Brooklyn.
When I first thought about my novel, I wanted to capture the feelings my mother and aunts used to convey to me in the stories they told me about that time in their lives – I wanted to write about sisters in transition, the disappointment of leaving a big city, and the complications of being left behind.
I also wanted to include an unsuccessful marriage in my story. My grandmother’s marriage was never a happy one, and though she and my grandfather lived only fifteen minutes from us, we almost never saw him. She would have meals at our house a few times a week, but he never accompanied her.
As I began to piece my novel together, I had an idea for a minor character whose backstory would involve a job at the Springfield Armory during World War II. It was while I was engaged in that research that a second wave of inspiration hit me. I came upon the armory’s “Forge of Innovation” website, which included over a dozen recorded interviews with women (and a few men) who had worked and/or lived at the armory. They came from all kinds of backgrounds and held a diverse array of positions – one was an officer’s wife, and one a single mother tasked with assembling triggers. I couldn’t stop thinking about those women. Because of them, I decided to push the time period of my novel to the 1940’s and to expand my original cast of characters. What began as a novel about only two sisters was revised to include the sisterhood of women who worked and lived at the Armory during the early years of World War II.
There’s something so compelling about multigenerational tales—they’re enough removed from the present, but woven into our DNA—and an intriguing exercise to reimagine the relationships and stories. What did you discover—about yourself or your family—while writing THE WARTIME SISTERS?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
As I was writing the early Kaplan family scenes set in Brooklyn, I thought a lot about how the way parents treat their children shapes not only the parents’ individual relationship with that child, but also the relationships siblings have with each other. Florence Kaplan does not treat her daughters equally, and she has very different expectations for each of them. Her words and her actions impact Ruth and Millie in terms of how each one sees herself. But her treatment also has negative consequences for Millie and Ruth’s relationship as sisters. The scene where Florence gives Ruth her old earrings is a perfect example of this. When Ruth finds out that her mother is saving her most valuable piece of jewelry (an opal ring) for Millie, Ruth can’t help but feel resentment toward her sister. Millie doesn’t even know the ring exists at this point, but that doesn’t prevent Ruth from holding her partially to blame. Years later, the ring becomes an important symbol for Ruth, one that triggers the renewal of past anger and jealousy.
Writing about the different ways parents treat their children made me think a lot about the way I treat my own children now, the way my parents treated me and my brother when I was young, and what I remember of the way my grandmother treated her three daughters. Of course, I try to treat my son and daughter equally, but “equal” is an impossible goal to achieve because they are different people with completely different personalities. I wrote a scene about Ruth struggling with this issue for THE WARTIME SISTERS because I thought it would be fascinating to explore her fears of repeating the same mistakes her own mother made.
I’m not sure I had any real revelations or discoveries about myself or my family as I worked through these themes, but exploring them on paper made me much more aware of potential disparities. No parent is perfect and no two children are the same, but I do think it is important to keep parental influence in mind when we think about the relationships our children have with each other.
Also, the whole concept of familial roles is intriguing to me. “The Smart One,” “The Cute One,” “The Musical One,” it can go on and on. You do a fabulous job of bringing these attributes to the surface in Millie and Ruth and depicting the way their parents (and others) treat them. Even outside of fiction, and into adulthood, we continue to fall into these roles in the presence of our family of origin. Can we ever break free from those roles?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
That question is one of the main themes I wanted to explore with this story. I think that in certain contexts, reinvention is attainable. Teenagers, for example, look forward to college in order to meet new people and have a fresh start. People leave jobs where they can’t move forward in their career paths. But in the context of a family, reinvention is much more difficult. Your relatives have known you since birth or early childhood, and they know (or think they know) everything about you. Siblings or cousins have nicknames for you, relatives have old photographs they like to display and stories they repeat at holiday gatherings. All of these pieces add up to a broader family mythology, and that mythology is almost impossible to revise.
“A riveting tale of sibling rivalry and the magnetic dissonance of family, filled with heart-stopping truths that are both tender and wise. One of my favorite books of the year.”
—Fiona Davis, national bestselling author of The Masterpiece
Yet—there’s an important distinction in THE WARTIME SISTERS. It’s not all about biological sisters, but the ‘sisterhood’ of all wartime women. Can you talk about that please?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
I love the idea of writing about both kinds of sisters – biological sisters, and also sisters of circumstance and/or choice. When I first listened to the interviews of the real women who worked at the armory during World War II, I was struck by the wide range of their experiences. One was a single mother working in the factories, and one was an accomplished musician and the wife of the commanding officer. I listened to an interview with a woman who had been a teenager living at the armory with her family, and another with a woman who spoke about getting accepted to the armory training school to become a draftsperson. I read about the women who were nurses on site, the women who drove trucks, and who operated the machinery. There were high school girls who worked as messengers, and older mothers who had lost sons in the war. Together, they formed a powerful sisterhood, and I wanted to provide a glimpse into their world.
A common theme of the recorded interviews was the sense of community that working and living at the armory provided. Everyone mentioned how happy they were to work at the armory, to be connected to it somehow, and to be doing their part for the war effort. They felt a common sense of purpose that brought them joy and fulfillment even in a dark time in our history. I loved writing about Millie’s first day of work, and the woman who trains her to assemble triggers. Regardless of age or experience or background, the women in that environment looked out for each other.
Let’s shift gears and chat about your fabulous research into the Springfield Armory. I love this kind of research! But it can often get overwhelming. How do you know when to stop—because it can quickly turn into a rabbit hole!
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
It’s SO hard to stop! I started with the armory website and then began reading whatever I could find about the Springfield Armory during World War II. In the summer of 2016, I made my first of three visits to the armory to meet with the curator of the Springfield Armory Museum. He walked me through a former officer’s home and let me explore the inside of the commanding officer’s residence.
When I saw the area where the manufacturing buildings had once been located, I began to see the armory as two separate worlds – the pristine, park-like sanctuary of Armory Square and the manufacturing center of Federal Square, just across the street. The setting reminded me of the sisters in my novel: physically close, yet with distinct and opposite temperaments.
During my second visit to the armory, I looked through every issue 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, and I honestly could have kept on reading them forever. Each newsletter was 30-40 pages long, and each page was full of wonderful material: articles 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. It took a lot of willpower to finally put them away.
I also listened to a lot of the music from that time period. The music was an important building block for Arietta’s character and all of her scenes. For months, I kept my car radio tuned the 1940’s Sirius Radio channel.
I’m not going to lie – burying yourself in research is a lot of fun. It gives you a perfect excuse to avoid writing – you can pretend that you’re working when you’re really just procrastinating. I did this several times, and each time I had to force myself to stop and go back to the story. At one point, for example, I became obsessed with how armory residents received their mail. They didn’t have mailboxes, so where was it delivered? Was there a separate mail room? Mail slots in the doors? I never found the answer, but ultimately, I knew it didn’t matter. Detailing the specific path of a letter from the post office to my character’s hands wasn’t going to move my plot along. I had to let it go.
THE WARTIME SISTERS is your second novel. It’s wonderful, it’s fabulous. But there’s always so much anxiety over the second one. What do you think you did right? Who or what kept you going?
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
This book was more difficult to write than my first, partly because I wrote it in less than half the time, and partly because of the story itself. It’s a more ambitious project than THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE because it doesn’t focus on only one family and one setting. There are more plotlines and characters, and weaving together the different timelines was extremely complicated. Setting the novel in such a historically significant place added to the pressure. I pushed myself with the research because I didn’t want to get anything wrong.
With THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE, some readers felt that the big secret was revealed too early, so with this book I was very careful to reveal information to the reader in a more controlled way. That kind of precision made the writing process more intricate.
I guess we’ll find out whether readers think I got it right!
What’s next for you? More historical fiction?!
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
My next book is set in the early 1900’s and is about a trio of immigrants who make their way to this country and settle in Boston’s North End. None of them know each other when they arrive, and they have all fled from dangerous or unhappy circumstances. Two are from southern Italy, one is from eastern Europe, and each one of them possesses a unique skill or talent. There are complicated family relationships (of course), two love triangles, and some very colorful characters.
Is there something I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like, what you’re reading, if you have any travel plans? What you’re most looking forward to this year…
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy lately, which is unusual for me.
I recently finished Sisters of The Winter Wood by Rena Rossner, a historical fairy-tale about two Jewish sisters that was inspired, in part, by Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market. It has a Hansel and Gretel meets Fiddler on the Roof feeling to it, and the writing is lush and beautiful. It is Rossner’s debut, and I’m so excited to see what she will write next.
I also read Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. This book was such a clever and smart re-imagination of the traditional Rumpelstiltskin story. The main protagonist is a young girl who follows in her grandfather’s footsteps to become a successful moneylender. I love Novik’s take on spinning straw into gold, and I thought the way she wove Jewish themes into her novel was absolutely brilliant.
Lynda, it was a pleasure and delight. Thank you for chatting with us!
Lynda Cohen Loigman:
Leslie, thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. You are such a careful and insightful reader, and I so appreciate it!
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE WARTIME SISTERS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 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.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of St. Martin’s Press via Kathleen Carter Communications and used with permission. Artful cover image designed and photographed by L. Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @LeslieLindsay1]