In his novel, A River Runs Through It, author Norman Maclean struggles to make sense of what happened to his family in the early 20th century and why. Set in rural Montana, this hauntingly evocative novel was made into a major motion picture in 1992. It’s directed by Robert Redford.
Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Wartime Sisters echoes themes from A River Runs Through It. Especially the final scene featuring Tom Skerritt as Norman’s pastor father. The last message we hear Rev. Maclean deliver is called We Can Love Completely:
And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding.
The Wartime Sisters gives legs to this sermon. It kind of picks up where River left off, exploring the often complicated relationships that occur within a family.
Insightful, poignant and powerfully subtle, the novel is also a deep dive into the unique sisterhood of unrelated women.
The Main Characters
Elder sister Ruth Fein is reserved, bookish, and plain. Millie Fein is strikingly beautiful, popular and impulsive. Growing up in Brooklyn, each sister grates on the other. To put it mildly.
Ruth is jealous of the fawning attention heaped on her beautiful younger sister while she’s treated like she’s invisible. She tires of the “older sister” responsibilities and wants to get out from under Millie’s shadow.
Millie envies her sister’s calm, capable demeanor and mental acumen. Her lousy grades reinforce her feelings of inferiority.
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” comparisons by their scheming mother and an opal ring don’t help.
Each sister resents the other but stiffly pretends otherwise, even when both know the other sister is lying.
Setting & POV
Close attention to the timeline and POV in this novel is imperative. It’s easy to get lost. Both flit in and out of the 1930s and the 1940s via the perspectives of four main characters: sisters Ruth and Millie Fein and their friends Lillian Walsh and Arietta Benevetto.
Lillian is the commanding officer’s wife at a Springfield defense armory where Ruth and her husband work during WWII. Arietta is a cook and singer at the armory cafeteria. She’s also Millie’s confidante. Ruth and her husband Arthur are joined by Millie and her two year old son at the armory when Millie’s deadbeat husband, Lenny, disappears.
Neither sister is too keen on the arrangement.
The dark cauldron of simmering resentments, hurts, and misunderstandings between the sisters boils over around page 216. Finally. A little honesty and transparency between siblings. Plenty to chew on here.
The Bottom Line
The Wartime Sisters isn’t really about a global conflict. It’s about a quiet war between two siblings whose dual secrets and rivalries last for years. And how they eventually close ranks and link arms to protect each other when threatened. Along the way we find out not only what makes each sister tick, but what “sisterhood” really means and why.
This is a thoughtful read that’s briskly paced. The characters are carefully drawn. They stand up and walk on their own. Much of the action is told via dialogue that also reflects each sister’s unique personality: matter-of-fact to the point of terse for Ruth and meandering and colorful for Millie. (Bonus points for anyone who puts Grace the Pugnacious Peabody in her place.)
Anyone who is or has ever had a sister will appreciate this multi-faceted and multi-layered novel. And that it is indeed possible to love completely, without complete understanding.
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