“In a word, I was too cowardly to do what I knew to be right.” While the words were written by Charles Dickens, they echo an ageless truth expounded by Lynda Cohen Loigman in her new novel, Wartime Sisters.
Like Dickens, Loigman is an entertaining writer with wonderful constructs and messages. She is a fervent student of human character and society. It’s what makes her story relevant to our modern world, one that is filled with judgment, antagonistic behaviors, and unresolved familial conflicts.
At the heart of Loigman’s impressive story are questions about why we act as we do and the complex ways we try to overcome our human frailties. What motivates us in life is, of course, a central consideration at WomanScape, so Loigman’s story is especially compelling. Even though she focuses on the female dynamic, the experiences and ideas are universal.
In part one of our spotlight on Loigman and Wartime Sisters, we consider how our formative years and the jealousies inherent in sibling rivalries affect us. While difficult to admit, many of us spend a lifetime running from them. Here, we travel deeper and explore why we can’t make peace with our past.
We’re in good hands with Loigman on this front. She lives up to the challenge like a seasoned orchestra conductor.
In carefully controlled sweeps, Loigman takes us through sweeping periods in Ruth and Millie’s tug of war relationship.
As readers, Loigman’s characters pull at our hearts and minds. We move effortlessly across time, place, and voice, with every chapter revealing new insights into each character and the supporting cast of characters. Together, they shape what we hear – which ultimately affects our perspective about which sister is most sympathetic and righteous.
The novel opens in Brooklyn, New York and flashes between 1919 and the 1930s (where Loigman’s mother lived, though twenty years later). The central action then moves to Springfield, Massachusetts from the 1930s to 1942 (where Loigman’s mother and her entire family relocated).
Like Dickens who exposed the duality of our nature and the compelling plights of two very different characters in conflict, Loigman also draws on the same technique. The rival feelings of each sister are gradually revealed and we watch helplessly as both struggle to find the courage to be honest with each other. We quickly become invested in the fight, possibly siding with one or the other depending on the experiences we bring to the story.
Loigman is patient and knows this, creating a slow build from the time the sisters are reunited in Springfield. When their anger comes to a crescendo, blood is spilled and there is nothing left to hide. It’s agonizing. Old tensions from the past are called out and we fall into their rift.
When Millie arrives on Ruth’s doorstep with her son, Michael, the wheels are set in motion. Even the beautiful residence in Armory Square lined with trees and beautiful homes can’t mask the deep-seated anger. Before long, Ruth and Millie’s true feelings to surface and a cold war evolves.
The sisters carefully avoid each other and any conflict. Despite inviting Ruth’s invitation for Millie to live with her, it is stilted and made out of pity, guilt, and love. Millie who is desperately poor hopes some vestige of sisterly love remains. Loigman writes:
“A carefully choreographed routine evolved between the two sisters. The dance was wordless and intricate, full of side steps and skirting, avoidance and circumvention.”
As readers, we are privy to more information and know how each sister feels about the other and themselves. Ruth wants to be loving and forgiving. She recognizes her guilt and the anger she feels over Millie’s coveted role in the family. But doing the right thing and having the humility to admit to these feelings and imperfections takes a strength she doesn’t have.
This speaks to our Dickens quote about courage. How do we find the courage to move past our guilt and fear, to find the words that have gone unsaid?
We worry about taking risks and being honest. Will this make us feel ashamed or inadequate? The fear of doing this and the lingering anger about our situation can be utterly paralyzing.
Even when Loigman’s eldest sister Ruth runs out to buy pajamas for her sister Millie’s young son, Michael (who reminds Ruth of her father), she can’t give the gift to Millie because she’s so ashamed of the anger she feels towards her. Clearly, both sisters want to get along but they can’t help feeling mistreated, jealous and resentful. Getting past these feelings takes courage and honesty, something neither is ready for.
Loigman fuels this inner conflict by adding a raging war on the outside world. She provides few details about the actual war, never mentioning the troops or even much about the sisters’ husbands. The setting and the other characters (many a compilation from archives and real women around Springfield’s historic Armory Square) sit on the periphery allowing the focus to remain on the real conflict – the sisters.
In a way, the cast of supporting characters provides some relief from the tension while also helping to advance the story plot.
The image of war is still extremely important as women soldier through battle in the real world and within their own personal relationships.
I love this modern take on women journeying into their hearts while the conflict around them closes in. This happens every day in our world. Each of us must find our separate peace but also manage the ongoing battles around us if we want to be happy and feel like we’re being treated fairly.
As the tension mounts around Armory Square and the bickering and hostility between the sisters escalates, their fragile peace is broken. They can’t pretend and realize there’s no escaping the truth or sweeping it aside.
Without giving away the ending, this realization is a victory of sorts. Loigman captures both ‘the best and the worst of times’ in the sisters’ war. While life will never be simple, they can move forward and find peace. Both come to terms with change and the inevitable: love will find a place in the world, despite the past and the conflicts that rage around us.
Of all the insights, I am most taken with Loigman’s messages of courage and forgiveness. In Wartime Sisters, it is a “far, far better thing I’ve done” enjoying the magic of Loigman’s craft and searching for peace and understanding.