In Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters, Gert and Winnie Turner narrate the tragedies and triumphs of their lives, and everything in between. Fay’s gorgeous prose lends itself to this touching story of the four Turner girls, their mother Ethel and father Frank, and the extended family they acquire as they take the stage during the vaudeville era.
I love a good bit of historical fiction, and Fay’s work did not disappoint. It was so well-researched, and the characters so carefully drawn, that the book was a dream to read, and it was impossible not to love all four of the Turner sisters, not to mention their extended vaudeville family.
Gert and Winnie’s narrative voices were similar in many ways, yet distinct in others; at times touching, but always a tribute to the indomitable female spirit in the age of the Suffragette movement.
Nell, the eldest sister, returns to the family home after losing her husband to the Spanish influenza, and after her father has lost his job to a hand injury. Their mother, Ethel, decides that the girls could earn money to help the family by performing on the small-time vaudeville circuit. So she pulls Gert, Winnie, and the youngest Turner, Kit out of school, and with the help of their agent Morty Birnbaum, they take the stage and charm audiences across the country.
The story is as much about the triumph of human spirit in the face of struggle as it is about Gert and Winnie coming into their own. Both find love, and learn that sometimes it’s not easy to keep. More importantly than finding love, the sisters find their independence, and hang onto it fiercely and fearlessly. As Gert says to Winnie, “The only thing you are is Winnie Turner. After that, you make your own terms.” Later, Winnie wonders what we all have at some point:
“I wondered if I could turn down the volume on my opinions without giving them up altogether. How much bending of oneself was necessary to nurture one’s love for someone with differing views?”
“What I truly wanted was to be taken seriously; to be able to form my own opinions—ones that might be challenged, certainly, but not utterly discounted; to dream my own dreams, and not have them limited by the happenstance of my gender or social standing. I wanted to be Winnie Turner, and as small and poor and female as that made me, I wanted the right to forge my own future.”
Ultimately, both girls end up following the paths they’ve chosen, regardless of what others wished for them, and that was a truly beautiful thing to see (I may or may not have teared up toward the ending, but if anyone asks I’ll deny it). Gert and Winnie’s independence is as beautiful as the sister-friendship they develop during their time tumbling together onstage.
Fay’s novel doesn’t shy away from the tensions between races or the era’s gender politics. She addresses racial inequity and racism head on when she includes the film Birth of A Nation, and after watching, Winnie characterizes the Klan as “a bunch of rednecks with nothing better to do than cause trouble.” The girls aren’t immune from the effects of racism on society, especially Gert, as she develops a friendship with one of their stage-mates, Hezekiah “Tippety Tap” Jones. At one of their stops, they encounter a “blackface minstrel” act, and Gert immediately wonders if Tip thinks, “That’s not me, and it’s no one I know.” All of the sisters are outraged when Tip is treated unequally, and they work together to help him after a particularly difficult time on stage. One of Fay’s most searing critiques of racism and prejudice (that works just as well today, and actually connects perfectly to this Medium essay) at the time was when Winnie thought to herself,
“I imagine he’d heard white people assert their lack of prejudice before, and I wondered what it must be like to know it was often only true when such open-mindedness was convenient.”
As far as gender politics goes, one of Winnie’s fights with her beau, Joe, hinges on him thinking women should not have the right to vote because “[t]hey’ve got enough to do just taking care of their families.” But Winnie staunchly supports her right to vote. She also wants to go to college, and knows in her very core that she is smart and capable enough to do so. She tells her ill nephew, Harry, as she walks him across the floor at night, “Did I tell you I want to go to college? It isn’t just for boys from hoity-toity families; young ladies go, too. … Maybe I could be a teacher like Miss Cartery.”
As well-researched as the novel is, the parallels between Great War-era United States and now are eerie. I suppose it goes to show that as much as things change, they remain, remarkably, the same.
“You think your heart belongs to you, and you can order it around, but you can’t. You belong to it.
For fans of Orphan Train and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, a compelling historical novel from “one of the best authors of women’s fiction” (Library Journal). Set against the turbulent backdrop of American Vaudeville, four sisters embark on an unexpected adventure—and a last-ditch effort to save their family.
In 1919, the Turner sisters and their parents are barely scraping by. Their father is a low-paid boot-stitcher in Johnson City, New York, and the family is always one paycheck away from eviction. When their father’s hand is crushed and he can no longer work, their irrepressible mother decides that the vaudeville stage is their best—and only—chance for survival.
Traveling by train from town to town, teenagers Gert, Winnie, and Kit, and recent widow Nell soon find a new kind of freedom in the company of performers who are as diverse as their acts. There is a seamier side to the business, however, and the young women face dangers and turns of fate they never could have anticipated. Heartwarming and surprising, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is ultimately a story of awakening—to unexpected possibilities, to love and heartbreak, and to the dawn of a new American era.