FICTION: Two sisters reinvent themselves – and the notion of family – in 1940s America.
‘I stood on the porch holding the suitcase, looking at the road. … I was thirteen before I understood my mother wasn’t coming back to get me.”
Twelve-year-old Eva has been left on her father’s front porch by her mother, who quickly speeds away in a borrowed car. Eva has only ever seen her father on Sundays, when he brings “a pack of Lucky Strikes for my mother and a Hershey bar for me.” Now she is thrown into making a home (and a family) with Edgar and his 16-year-old daughter, Iris.
Amy Bloom (“Away”) begins Eva’s story on a small porch in a small town in 1939 Ohio, but “Lucky Us” is anything but small. Set against a world careering toward war, Bloom’s book beautifully explores the myriad ways in which we define and create the American family, and ultimately how we carve our path when life keeps throwing obstacles in our way.
Enchanted with her new sister, Eva assumes the role of faithful sidekick, helping the gregarious Iris prepare for her pageants and speaking contests. The two motherless girls, unhappy with Edgar and with small-town Ohio, run off to Hollywood together to fulfill Iris’ dream of becoming an actress. After a lesbian affair gets Iris blacklisted from Hollywood, the girls get on the road again, this time to New York with Edgar and close friend Francisco in tow.
Eventually, they all make a life in New York by re-creating themselves — Edgar fakes a history of service to obtain a job as a butler with a wealthy family — and they all begin anew. Iris returns to acting, while Eva takes over Iris’ job as governess. It isn’t long before love and tragedy fill their lives, sending everyone reeling and re-creating himself or herself again.
In the midst of all of this, Eva feels a deep longing. “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars. Big ones, little ones, Italian ones, Negro ones. All I wanted was some soft, firm shoulder to lean against, a capable hand setting me right and making me breakfast.”
In every role they play, each character wears artifice like armor, reinforcing themselves against betrayal and tragic loss. Although Bloom’s plot twists are infused with drama, she is careful to temper the spectacle with quiet and measured prose. “Lucky Us” is a beautiful novel with complicated and layered messages about survival, family and obligation, but ultimately it is a novel about hope and possibility, when we finally understand that we are more than the sum of our circumstances.
Kim Schmidt has written reviews and features for American Way Magazine and the Chicago Tribune.