The Tumbling Turner Sisters: A Novel

  • By Juliette Fay
  • Gallery Books
  • 352 pp.

A fast-paced story of survival and feminine strength.

Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters is just the summer read if, as a kid, you loved tales of resilient, aspirational young Americans facing down tough circumstances — think Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family.

And if you’re curious about the pre-Roaring-Twenties shenanigans of working-class, East Coast Americans — definitely not the Jay Gatsbys and Daisy Buchanans — and you hanker to hang out backstage in the heyday of vaudeville before its theaters turned into movie houses, you’ll love this fast-paced romp of a novel.

Barely scraping by, the teenage Turner girls and their parents are one paycheck away from eviction in Upstate New York in the winter after World War I. Their father, a low-paid boot-stitcher, can no longer work after his hand gets crushed in a beer brawl. Destitution is in the offing.

To the rescue comes the family’s irrepressible matriarch, Ethel, who, years before, had imagined a life on stage until an early marriage and quick succession of bawling babies. Ethel seizes on the vaudeville circuit as the family’s best — and only — chance for survival.

She cajoles and browbeats her daughters — Nell, Gert, Winnie, and Kit — into devising and rehearsing a scantily clad tumbling act and, with the help of Mortie Birnbaum, an agent who conveniently materializes on the scene, takes the Turners on the road. The four tumbling Turners travel from town to town for adventure-filled, weeklong engagements at one “opera house” after another.

Told in alternating chapters from the points of view of statuesque, flirtatious Gert and shy, bookish Winnie, the novel propels its main characters and its cast of mostly fictional secondary characters through major benchmarks of early-20th-century American social history: Nell’s husband, a World War I doughboy, has died in the 1918 influenza epidemic upon returning to the States from war-torn Europe; the Turner father’s accident occurs on the eve of the passage of the Prohibition Act; Ethel’s terror of fire echoes the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (1911) and the Binghamton Clothing Factory Fire (1913); and the looming specter of industrial disasters figures in an off-stage character’s demise during Boston’s Great Molasses Flood (1919).

The novel’s climax is Seattle’s Lincoln Hotel Fire (1920); a major plot thread involving women’s educational aspirations is resolved (spoiler alert!) by scholarship aid at one of the Seven Sisters colleges. Margaret Sanger’s birth-control initiative and the blackface minstrelsy tradition also figure in the plot. So does vaudevillian Archie Leach before he transformed himself into Cary Grant.

Historical themes are made current as the plucky Turner sisters face down racial and anti-immigrant prejudices. Long marriages are tested. Love affairs abound. There is a glimmer of the blurry line between early-adolescent friendship and same-sex attraction.

In a plot as fresh and ebullient, as energetic and frenetic as a well-timed live show, the author spotlights a vast cast of convincing, colorful characters, each with a distinct voice and personality. Deftly directed by Fay, the Turners, their fellow vaudevillians, and America itself make us shudder, shed a tear, chuckle, cheer — and, on occasion, hiss and boo.

Rhoda Trooboff, a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, is author of the novel Correspondence Course: The Bathsua Project (2014) and a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press, Ltd.

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