Sometimes you have to read a book that is just plain fun. Juliette Fay's The Tumbling Turner Sisters is just that kind of a book. Set in Johnson City, New York the novel journals the 4 Turner sisters as they take their place in a long list of vaudevillian performers at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.
Frank Turner, father to the sisters and husband to Ethel, gets into a brawl at a bar and injures his hand so badly that he cannot work as a boot stitcher. Ethel decides that in order to make some money for the family the sister will become a scantily clad vaudeville acrobatic act. Kit, Gert, Winnie, and Nell are a bit reluctant but rise to the occasion. Signed by Mortie Birnbaum the act hits the road to second rate theatres and opera houses of northern New York, including Sackets Harbor, Clayton, Oneonta, Geneva and Lyons. Told through the eyes and words of Gert and Winnie, the reader gains a real insight into the life of a performer and the history and society of 1919.
Nell is a widow whose husband fought in the Great War, survived the battles, but before he arrived home fell victim to the Spanish flu. Nell also has a baby, Harry. Gert and Winnie bring different perspectives to the novel. Gert is outgoing and flirtatious; Winnie is a bookworm who wants to go to college and become a doctor. Both get a taste of a bit of romance on tour. Secondary characters add to the drama and frivolity, even the act of two orangutans and a couple of parrots. Tip, the tap dancer, and Joe and his sister, Lucy play major roles in the lives of the young women.
The historical events provide a sense of the times: the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire, prohibition, the influence of Birth of a Nation and the Klu Klux Klan, and the anti-immigrant feelings are major themes. Fay provides the reader with her historical resources including the memories and stories of her great grandfather who was a vaudeville dancer.
Being set in upstate New York added to the appeal of the book. The places were familiar and could be easily pictured. Even in the epilogue, the mention of Tower Court and Wellesley College brought back fond memories. This was an enjoyable book and one that could be read in a fairly quick time frame. There are laughs and some tears, cheers and boos, relationships that grow and those that are jolted. A book to slip in between longer and more contemplative tomes.