Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"The Sisters of Summit Avenue"

Lynn Cullen is the bestselling author of historical novels The Sisters of Summit Avenue, Twain’s End, Mrs. Poe, Reign of Madness, and I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter.

She applied the Page 69 Test to The Sisters of Summit Avenue and reported the following:
From page 69:
After eight years, Ruth knew to wait to see if this was one of the days that he could talk. And to not expect that it would be. So often when she sat with him, he couldn’t even open his eyes. They would quiver under his lids while his mouth and fingers twitched, like a long-dead monster coming back to life. No wonder the kids were afraid of him.

She took a deep breath and entered.

His eyes were open.

She cocked her head with surprise. “Hello.”
The “long-dead monster coming back to life” is John, a once-vital young man suffering from what was commonly called “sleeping sickness.” Millions of patients fell ill with encephalitis lethargica during a worldwide epidemic from 1915 to 1926. Many died, including the wife of the richest man in America, J.P. Morgan. Others, like John, and like my own grandfather, survived, only to be mostly confined to bed, sometimes lingering for decades. There was nothing wrong with the sufferers’ bodies. The victims retained all of their senses and were capable of moving—they simply could not stay awake long enough to interact. They could hear their families and see them, just not often join them.

This epidemic that affected so many lives is now relatively unknown. How did it drop from public consciousness? Because it ran its course at the same time as the Spanish Influenza epidemic? Because World War I and then rebuilding after the war commanded everyone’s attention? Or was it because of the mores of the time, families were embarrassed to have invalids at home, and so they kept it quiet? There were no public services to help patients and their families even if they did report an illness, so perhaps many long-term cases simply dropped from sight.

In The Sisters of Summit Avenue, set in 1934 in the middle of the Great Depression, one sister, June, is always golden. She marries well; she’s wealthy; she’s beautiful; she’s such a perfect hostess that she works developing recipes for that beloved food goddess, Betty Crocker. The other sister, Ruth, is the black sheep. She’s losing her husband’s family farm; she’s a little plain and way too blunt; her husband is bedbound with sleeping sickness. Yet each sister desperately wants something the other has. Page 69 hints at what that might be.
Learn more about the book and author at Lynn Cullen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue