The Tumbling Turner Sisters

A Book Club Recommendation!

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About The Book

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.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Tumbling Turner Sisters includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
 

Introduction

It’s 1919, and in the world of entertainment, vaudeville is king. Nell, Gert, Winnie, and Kit Turner love going to vaudeville shows but have no interest in becoming performers themselves until their household is rocked by tragedy and they are faced with eviction. Along with their starstruck mother and Nell’s infant son, they hit the road as the Tumbling Turner Sisters, an acrobatic act that eventually lands them on the thriving vaudeville circuit. As they perform with a host of legendary acts (and some unsavory rivals), brash Gert and bookish Winnie encounter everything from hardworking dreamers to fast-talking swindlers. When their paths cross with Tip, a handsome African-American dancer who quickly steals Gert’s heart, they must decide what they’re willing to risk in a world that is far more complicated than they could have foretold. As the crowds applaud and the footlights blaze, the Turner sisters must balance the societal constraints of the day with the independent women they are learning to become.
 

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Early in the novel, Gert muses about what she’s willing to do to have “a bigger, better life.” Going on tour certainly gives her a broader view of the world, but by the end of the novel, would you say her life is better? How does Gert’s definition of a better life change?

2. In many ways, gender roles in the Turner family are reversed: the women become the providers and work outside of the home, while Mr. Turner leads a more domestic life after his injury. Were you surprised by the amount of freedom women in the 1910s were depicted as having in the novel? Why or why not?

3. On p. 72, the Turners get a kick out of Kit’s newfound mastery of vaudeville slang. What familiar phrases were you most surprised to find had vaudeville roots?

4. Winnie, Gert, and Tip share a sense of being trapped by others’ expectations, exemplified in the competing concepts of “blacking up” and “living large.” In what ways do they fight society’s prejudices, and in what ways must they find compromises?

5. At the beginning of Chapter 18, Gert says: “You think your heart belongs to you, and you can order it around, but you can’t. You belong to it.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

6. Mrs. Turner is even more excited to join the world of vaudeville than her girls are. Why is vaudeville so appealing to her? What does it offer that her life at home does not? Could you relate to her? Why or why not?

7. Fay opens each chapter with a quote from a famous real-life contemporary of the fictional Turner sisters, including singers, dancers, acrobats, and comedians. Which quotation resonated most with you?

8. “How much bending of oneself was necessary to nurture one’s love for someone with differing views?” (p. 253). Though Winnie wonders about this in terms of her romance with Joe, apply this same question to Nell, Gert, and Kit. In what ways does each of the sisters risk conflict with others by being themselves?

9. What elements of this story felt most modern to you? What elements felt the most old-fashioned?

10. “Success in show business depends on your ability to make and keep friends.” Chapter 20 opens with this quote by singer Sophie Tucker. Think of some ways in which the Turners’ adventures in vaudeville prove this statement. In what ways do their friendships either bring them success or put their careers in jeopardy?

11. Think of ways in which each girl takes on leadership qualities over the course of the novel. How do these differ from one another? Who would you consider the “leader” of the Turner sisters?

12. Though Nell’s husband, Harry, never appears in the novel, his influence lives on in the Turners’ lives. How are Nell, Winnie, and Gert each affected by his loss? How does his memory and legacy affect their choices throughout the book?

13. Which of the vaudeville acts described in The Tumbling Turner Sisters would you most like to see live?
 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Vaudeville blossomed from coast to coast from the 1880s to the 1920s, and as Juliette Fay states in the introduction (and the Turners learn as they go on the road), even tiny towns would turn out in force to see the latest, greatest live acts. Do some research and see if your own town or a nearby one had a vaudeville theatre. If it still stands, take a field trip to see it. Can you imagine the Turners playing there?

2. Have each of your members pick a real figure who is mentioned in the novel, such as Margaret Sanger, Rita Hayworth, or Cary Grant. Do a short presentation on your chosen person for the rest of the book club, complete with images, recordings, or video if they exist.

3. On their romantic date at the legendary Maramor restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, Winnie and Joe try a “new drink” called a Singapore Sling, a sweet and fruity classic cocktail. While there are many variations, here’s a basic recipe. Make a batch for your book club!
 

Add ¾ oz. gin, ¼ oz. Grand Marnier, ¼ oz. cherry liqueur, 1 oz. pineapple juice, and ½ oz. lime juice to an ice-filled shaker. Shake, and strain into a highball glass, then top off the mixture with club soda. Garnish with pineapple, orange, and a maraschino cherry.

 

About The Author

Photograph by Kristen Dacey Lwai

Juliette Fay is the bestselling author of five novels, including the USA TODAY bestseller The Tumbling Turner Sisters. A graduate of Boston College and Harvard University, she lives in Massachusetts. Visit her at JulietteFay.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (June 2016)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501134470

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Raves and Reviews

“This novel of love, dreams, and the everlasting strength of family perfectly encapsulates the social mores and pressures of the early twentieth century. The Turner sisters dare to dream big--don’t miss this page turner!” 

– Sara Gruen, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants

“Filled with energetic prose and colorful characters—you won’t soon forget the Turner girls!”

– Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

“Book clubs are sure to fall for The Tumbling Turner Sisters. Through this band of charming young women—and their stage mother, of course—Juliette Fay delivers the history, mystery, and prejudice of vaudeville in a story that is ultimately about the possibility of practice making something perfect (or perfect enough, anyway), the benefits of humor and ambition, and the redemptive power of love."

– Meg Waite Clayton, New York Times bestselling author of The Race for Paris

"Lovable, memorable characters propel this heartwarming story, which makes you laugh while it makes you think, then sticks with you long after the last vibrant page is savored."

 

– Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Twain's End and Mrs. Poe

"The Turner sisters come tumbling out of this terrific story, full of life, passion and trouble. Forced into a life in vaudeville, the four young girls and their mother push the boundaries of propriety to achieve their dreams in a world that doesn’t often allow women to have dreams. Gert and Winnie shine as each, in her own way, fights for her right to be who she is. A great piece of historical fiction that rings true one hundred years later."

– B.A. Shapiro, NYT bestselling author of The Muralist and The Art Forger

"Evoking the entrepreneurial, madcap era of vaudeville, Juliette Fay immerses us in the trials, joys, and dangers of three young women, whose bid for success is as uproarious and heartbreaking as the time in which they lived."

– C.W. Gortner, bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel

The Tumbling Turner Sisters explores vaudeville with stunning humanity and sharp humor. Juliette Fay’s novel of sisters forced by their ultimate stage mother into this show business world of fanciful facade hiding cutthroat innards reveals America—from Jim Crow laws to skirting prohibition. Like Little Women, these four sisters, facing loss and poverty, reveal a family with an unbreakable core of fortitude and love.” 

– Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of Accidents of Marriage

"As colorful as its vaudeville setting, The Tumbling Turner Sisters made me laugh, cry, and clap my hands with delight as I cheered on these four lovable and spunky sisters. A big-hearted tale of adventure."

 

– Ann Mah, author of Mastering the Art of French Eating

"Packed with lively characters and charming detail, Juliette Fay's thoughtful prose sheds light on an almost forgotten part of entertainment history."                              

– Allie Larkin, bestselling author of Stay and Why I Can't Be You

The Tumbling Turner Sisters takes you on a wild ride through the glory days of vaudeville, following Winnie and Gert as they hit the gritty floorboards of backwater theaters, pick themselves up, and strive again toward laughter-filled heights.  The prose is riveting as the sisters carry their family out of poverty in a time of racially charged political turmoil. Through Juliette Fay’s multilayered characters, I feel the sisters’ entanglements and passions as if they were my own.” 

– E. B. Moore, author of An Unseemly Wife and Stones in the Road

“An absorbing and heartfelt tale of four sisters in desperate contortions to keep their family aloft. I loved this slice of theatrical history, and Fay’s meticulous research brings to life the vivid playhouses and costumed performers — ingénues and divas, swindlers and sots. I stayed awake far too late wondering whether the girls would come in for a safe landing.” 

– Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.

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