Atlanta author Lynn Cullen took on her most personal project yet with her newest novel, “The Sisters of Summit Avenue,” a ‘30s-era story of the rivalry and struggles between two Midwestern sisters and the secrets kept by their mother.
June, reserved, blond and with movie star good looks, has learned not to make waves. She straps her feelings down so tightly she doesn’t even protest when wrongly accused of cheating in school after scoring perfectly on an exam. Loud and contrarian younger sister Ruth is her opposite in every way and has a passion for disrupting the status quo. So when June meets a tall, gentlemanly farm boy named John with aspirations of becoming a writer, younger sister Ruth quickly sets her sights on stealing him away.
Through it all, their mother Dorothy, the daughter of two servants, perseveres. Having been manipulated by parents, employers and an elderly cousin, she’s become a quirky, solitary figure who tints black-and-white photographs to support her household while shrinking from interaction with her husband and neighbors.
As Cullen recounts in a note to Goodreads readers, the character of Dorothy is based on her own mother (Ilene Doughty), a part of the singing Kiess Sisters who performed on the radio in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1934, the year the novel begins. “I wish I had known her then. The truth is, I hardly knew her at all,” Cullen writes. “By the time I was born, she was mired in the swamp of mental disorders that would consume her for the rest of her life.”
June and Ruth can only see their mother through their own eyes, their view distorted by their individual wants and needs. “I was guilty of this with my mother. How I wished for her to be a perfect mother and homemaker, a hostess worthy of Betty Crocker,” notes Cullen. “Couldn’t she be just ‘like everyone else?’”
Betty Crocker looms large in “The Sisters of Summit Avenue,” as June becomes one of a team of 21 young Minneapolis-based women behind the General Mills marketing icon. Trim and tidy in white dresses and pumps, the group tested recipes, answered fan mail and served as the cumulative “face” of Betty Crocker on radio and in homemaker-targeted magazines. It was a workplace that served to bring hope — veiled with perfectionism and man-pleasing — to women across the country in the midst of the Great Depression, a time Cullen describes with stinging detail.
“The country was oozing with lonely, desperate, destitute women, women anxious for something to cling to with so many of their men cut adrift. Over the last four years’ time, America had become a nation of hobos and Hoovervilles, bank robbers and soup lines, home foreclosures and skyscraper leaps.” Betty Crocker, with her decorating advice, celebrity gossip and comfort recipes offered a diversion that struck a chord with women.
In June, the male-dominated company finds a perfect “Betty,” and her specialty becomes creating dazzling menus and table settings. Cullen throws the curtain back, however, to reveal a painful inadequacy behind June’s well-crafted exterior. As a doctor’s wife, she has fabulous clothes, jewels and a mansion filled with servants, but the higher she rises in country club status, the greater her sense of failure becomes over her inability to have children.
Mother Dorothy’s detachment and isolation have profound effects on both girls, with Ruth taking on all the anger for the family. Her personality is shaped by the unfairness she feels when attention is showered upon June, and incidents of neglect by their mother. On her first day of kindergarten, Ruth is left to wander home alone in a nightmarish scene. Understandably, Ruth acquires a hard shell that doesn’t lend her character much likability. Her fortitude as a farmer and mother to four girls is admirable, but when she isn’t exploding in anger, she’s muttering surly asides or scowling.
As in her previous books, Cullen’s gift for bringing cultural and literary icons to life shines. When 17-year-old Ruth, obsessed with all things “flapper,” takes a train into Chicago to forage style accessories, she, along with John and Ruth, encounter radicals with megaphones espousing birth control, free love and animal rights. Soon they’re rubbing elbows with poet Carl Sandburg at the Dil Pickle Club’s basement speakeasy. Subjects from several of Cullen’s previous novels get passing mentions, including Mark Twain (“Twain’s End”) and Edgar Allan Poe (“Mrs. Poe”).
Cullen’s storytelling skills sweep the plot along , and cataclysmic events coincide on Ruth’s dust-battered farm on the Indiana-Michigan state line. These are flawed, often testy characters who are also utterly believable. Their failings and insecurities are on full display. True to the era, behavioral issues like anxiety, social awkwardness and isolation, which might be identified and treated through medication or therapy today, are ignored, and Dorothy, Ruth and June are often degraded, patronized and undervalued as a result.
Rooted in age-old sibling rivalries, “The Sisters of Summit Avenue” asks if it’s possible to overcome the insecurities and biases of childhood, and offers hope for the likelihood of growth and healing in adulthood.
‘The Sisters of Summit Avenue’
by Lynn Cullen
309 pages, $27
Lynn Cullen. “The Sisters of Summit Avenue” book launch. 7 p.m. Sept. 9. $10. Margaret Mitchell House, 979 Crescent Ave., Atlanta 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com