Recap: Winnie and Gert come from an already poor family, but they’re about to be poorer. Thanks to their father’s drunken mishap and hand injury, he can no longer work in the factory where he’s employed, and now they, their mother, their two other sisters and baby nephew must find a way to keep going and pay the rent. Their older sister, Nell is too busy caring for her baby and too depressed over the loss of her husband to help. Their younger sister is still in school. But their mother is all too resilient to let the family fall apart. It’s the early 1900s. The solution is easy. Become a travelling vaudeville act. And that’s exactly what the sisters do.
They practice their tumbling and find an agent who books them gigs throughout Upstate New York. Along the way, Winnie meets a wonderful man who, unfortunately for her mother and her bias, is an Italian immigrant from Boston. His younger sister and Winnie’s younger sister become close friends as well. But Gert, the voluptuous older sister, falls for a black man, a fabulous tap dancer who performs in shows with them. Their love is kept secret for fear they would get in trouble. But a racially-induced misunderstanding eventually forces him to leave the show and escape, leaving Gert in shambles.
And as The Tumbling Turner Sisters continue travelling, adding things to their act and becoming bigger and better, it becomes harder or even impossible for Winnie and Gert to keep in touch with the men they love. They are finally reaching a state of comfort financially and emotionally until one tragic event changes everything. The girls start to realize vaudeville may not be forever, but where will The Tumbling Turner Sisters turn next?
Analysis: A story about four sisters growing up, working together, encouraging each other and trying to find their way in life, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is like a vaudevillian version of Little Women — a correlation made just a little too obvious with the author’s mention of the American classic within her own novel, as Winnie attempts to read Little Women, but is bored with it.
I suppose by contrast, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is more exciting than Little Women (though I will always love that book), and the narration helps with that. Each chapter goes back and forth between narration by Gert and Winnie, clearly the strongest characters in the novel and women in the family, offering differing perspectives on their lives, the theater and the world between 1918 and 1920.
Author Juliette Fay also does such an excellent job of seamlessly including historical aspects of the early 1900s America with her descriptions of vaudeville life that it helps to touch on the social issues of the novel, including women’s role in society, racism and the economy. The setting is just as big a character as any, making it glaringly obvious just how far we’ve come since then (Women can vote! And go to college!) and yet, how little has changed in terms of racism. Her writing really puts things in perspective.
MVP: Winnie and Gert. Though initially described as sisters who couldn’t be more different — Winnie, the brainy type who wants to be a nurse and vote for the next President and Gert, the Becky-with-the-Good-Hair of the novel who is beautiful and always has a suitor — they are also the most determined and focused on their goals and their family.