The Wartime Sisters Book Cover

The Fraught and Frayed Bonds of Sisterhood

Lynda Cohen Loigman: I grew up in Western Massachusetts, just a few miles from the Springfield Armory. My mother moved to The Wartime Sisters Book CoverSpringfield from Brooklyn, New York with her parents and two sisters when she was eighteen years old. When I first began writing The Wartime Sisters, it was set in the early 1960s, during the same time period in which my mother moved. I had an idea for a minor character whose backstory would involve a job at the Springfield Armory during World War II. In order to find out more about the armory for that one character, I did a bit of preliminary research. I was shocked when I learned that what I had always envisioned as nothing more than a giant weapons factory was actually a bucolic campus filled with elegant homes and manicured gardens. The more I learned about the armory and the city of Springfield during the early 1940s, the more I wanted to write about it. I decided to push my narrative back twenty years and to focus on the armory as the primary setting.

In the summer of 2016, I made my first of three visits to the armory for research. Alex MacKenzie, the curator of the Springfield Armory Museum walked me through the grounds and let me explore the commanding officer’s residence (Lillian’s home), as well as Building 5/6 (Ruth’s home). I looked through old photographs, and read through every issue of The Armory Newsletter–a monthly pamphlet that was written, illustrated, and published by employees from the fall of 1941 to August of 1943. The pamphlets were a window into daily armory life: an article recapping an employee’s first day on the job; gossip pages listing engagements and weddings; sports pages detailing the scores for armory sports teams; hand-drawn cartoons poking fun at the war; and spotlight pieces about employees with special talents and backgrounds. With every edition I read, I was able to picture more clearly what it must have been like to work and to live at this remarkable place. 

I also looked through old editions of The Springfield Republican during the time period in which the book was set. It was incredibly helpful to see the headlines, the advertisements, and the stories that were captivating Springfield residents at that time. 

Finally, I listened to a lot of music from that time period. The music was an important building block of the story, especially in creating the character of Arietta.

YZM: It seems like woman had significant roles there, as they did in other arenas during WWII; can you elaborate? 

 LCL: Women were first employed in manufacturing at the armory during World War I, but after the war, most lost their jobs. During World War II, the armory again turned to women to overcome the labor shortage. By June of 1943, approximately 12,000 people worked at the armory, and of that number, 43% were women. 

During my research, I found the armory’s “Forge of Innovation” website, which included over a dozen recorded interviews with women who had worked and/or lived at the armory. They were lathe operators, truck drivers, teenagers, and mothers. Some were women who had lived on the grounds as children, and one was the wife of a former Commanding Officer. Listening to the stories of all these women helped to shape the characters of my novel. 

During World War II, women participated in every aspect of armory life. They worked in both the factories and in the administrative offices. The women interviewed on the “Forge of Innovation” website all shared the same sense of purpose. They were proud of their jobs and proud of the fact that they were serving their country by working at the armory. For many of them, it was the first job they ever had.

YZM: There’s seems something almost Biblical about the tension and rivalry between the two sisters, Millie and Ruth Kaplan. Was that your intention?

LCL: I love that you felt this way about their relationship! In college, I took a course called “The Bible as Literature.” It was wonderful because it helped me to think about all of those familiar stories in terms of narrative structure and character development. It wasn’t my explicit intention to write in this direction, but I do think that in every sibling story there will always be a bit of Cain and Abel. It’s comforting for readers to believe that there is a “good” sibling and a “bad” one. It makes it easier for them to pick a character to champion. In my story, I tried to make the characters more complex than that, but I think it’s human nature to want to choose sides.

YZM: During the course of the novel, both Ruth and Millie make discoveries about not only about each other, but also about themselves.  Care to comment?

LCL: I have always been drawn to stories that are centered around long-held family secrets. Family secrets shift and evolve over time the same way family stories do. They are shaped by the ever-changing perceptions of family members and are kept or told based on changes in circumstance. When the secrets kept by each of the sisters in my story are revealed, forgiveness seems almost impossible at first. But only when the truth is finally exposed can each sister begin to have empathy for the other. Ruth must admit the selfish nature of her past actions in order to appreciate Millie’s suffering, and Millie cannot begin to understand the pressure Ruth is under until she finally admits to her own irresponsible behavior. 

YZM: How do you see the contributions of the other strong female voices in the novel—Lillian and Arietta?

LCL: The character of Lillian was initially inspired by an interview with the wife of a former commanding officer. For me, Lillian is the most resilient of all of the characters in the story. Her childhood is the most traumatic, and yet she manages to be an incredible mother, a wonderful friend, and a truly admirable leader. I love Lillian because of how capable she is. No matter how messy things get, she never loses sight of who she is. 

The character of Arietta came to me as I was reading about the many roles women filled at the armory. One book mentioned that a local opera singer worked as a short-order cook at the armory cafeteria. As soon as I read that line, an image of Arietta popped into my head. I wanted to include a lighter, less serious character to round out the story, and I knew that a singing cook would be perfect. 

YZM: What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

I wanted the characters in The Wartime Sisters to be imperfect and layered, to make good and bad choices, to be difficult, to fail, and also to grow. It’s important to me that people recognize pieces of themselves and their family members when they read about Ruth and Millie. I love when readers tell me that they started out rooting for one sister and then changed their mind to root for the other. That’s why I enjoy writing from multiple points of view – I want readers to think about how the characters are feeling and try to understand why they behave the way they do. It is my hope always to cultivate empathy. 

YZM: What’s next for you?

LCL: I’m finishing up my third novel right now. It follows a trio of Italian and Jewish immigrants who settle in the North End of Boston in the early 1900s. There are complicated family relationships (of course), a love triangle, and some very colorful characters. This next book is my most ambitious story yet in terms of building a unique world for my characters. Some of the elements are rooted in folklore and familiar childhood stories, which makes it incredibly fun to write.