By Stacey Dresner
Growing up in Longmeadow, Lynda Cohen Loigman knew about the Springfield Armory, the former weapon manufacturer in Howard Street in downtown Springfield.
But when she was writing her second novel, set in Springfield during World War II, she learned so much about the rich history of the armory that it is one of the main settings of the book, The Wartime Sisters.
The story of two estranged Jewish sisters from Brooklyn, N.Y. who both end up in Springfield during the war – one as an officer’s wife living on the beautiful campus of the Springfield Armory, and the other a war widow working in one of the armory’s factories – the book is about fractured family relationships and secrets. It also shares much about the fascinating world inside the Springfield Armory in 1942.
Loigman will visit her hometown of Springfield on Tuesday, Feb. 26 when she appears as part of Literatour: The Jewish Book Festival at the Springfield Jewish Community Center. Attendees will get a chance to meet Loigman and have their books signed by her.
“I’m so excited to go to Springfield,” Loigman said. “People love to feel connected to the story and I hope people will come and have these connections.”
Loigman was born in Springfield and she and her family moved to Longmeadow when she was in kindergarten. Her father, Harris Cohen, a native of Chicopee, was a social worker with the Department of Welfare in Springfield. Her mother, the late Janice Cohen, was a native of Brooklyn who moved to Springfield after finishing high school. She worked at the former Beth Israel Synagogue in Springfield and that was where the family went to shul, although they were not Orthodox. When Loigman was an adult her parents joined Temple Beth El.
Loigman attended local schools, graduating from Longmeadow High School. She recalls that her father was a member of the JCC’s Early Birds, men who got up extra early in the morning to work out at the center before work. She was a member of BBG, B’nai B’rith Girls, which met weekly at the JCC.
She went on to get a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. She practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband, Robert in Chappaqua.
“I was a trusts and estates lawyer, so that was dealing with families and dealing with people either writing their wills and getting their estate planning together or after some one had died and doing the estate administration,” she explained. “I liked that area of law because it was very personal and dealt with families… I just never liked all the tax law that you need to know on top of being a comforting presence and trying to help people cope with stuff. So I liked part of it. But I really didn’t like practicing law.”
Her mother had always been adamant that Loigman and her brother end up in careers in which they would be able to support themselves.
“She was very practical and so she was always saying, ‘Be a doctor or a lawyer.’ So my brother is a doctor and I became a lawyer,” she said. “She had a very feminist attitude about women working and making their way in the world and being able to care for themselves.”
After eight years and the birth of her daughter, now 20, Loigman worked part-time as a lawyer and then as a legal recruiter before quitting. She soon decided to try her hand at writing a book.
“My mom passed away when I was 38 and then I turned 40 and I just decided that I had to start writing this story that I had in my head, which was The Two-Family House. I sat on it and thought about it and developed it in my head,” she said.
She says she never considered being a writer before this.
“It wasn’t something I thought was attainable at all. I didn’t dare to think about it. It was not something I felt was a realistic kind of career,” she said.
She became as student at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.
“I learned how to write really in that class and I took that class for five years,” she recalled. “Then I got really lucky and went to a conference there and I met my agent. She wanted to represent me and it was really an amazing thing because it is hard to get an agent.”
Set post-World War II in Brooklyn,
The Two-Family House tells the story of two brothers living in a two-family home with their wives and children – one brother with all sons and one with all daughters. It is about family relationships, family issues, jealousy and one really big secret. Loigman’s mother grew up one of three girls in a two-family house in Brooklyn, while her grandmother’s brother lived downstairs and he also had three girls. But the setting is really where the similarities end, Loigman says.
The Two-Family House was published in March 2016 and was chosen by Goodreads as the best book of the month for March 2016 and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction.
Her second novel also has its roots in Brooklyn.
“My mom moved from Brooklyn to Springfield after finishing high school. All of the stories about Brooklyn that I had been told when I was little changed to Springfield stories. When I first started thinking about a second book I knew I wanted to write another family story because The Two- Family House really resonated with so many people who recognized their own families.
I wanted to write another story that felt that way.
“I was going to write about sisters and about this of idea of moving from Brooklyn to Springfield, and being very disappointed because my mom and my sisters and my grandmother thought they had gone to the North Pole,” she laughed.
She also got the idea to include a character with backstory of working at the Springfield Armory during World War II.
“I thought I was going to have a page of it in my book. But I started researching the Armory and I got completely caught up in it,” she said.
She found 25 hours of recorded interviews on the Armory’s website of men and women who worked at the Armory during the war. “I listened to all of them, especially the women talking about the different jobs they had and how proud they all were to work there.”
But more than anything she was shocked at the colorful world that had existed at the Armory during the war years and before. “I thought it was a factory building; I had no idea that it was this enormous campus. There was a swimming pool there and tennis courts and huge gardens. It was like a park…there were all these gardeners working there and Rose arbors. I had no idea.”
Loigman read more and more about the Armory and finally visited in July 2016, getting a full tour from the curator of the Armory Museum Alex McKenzie.
She learned that the site was originally an arsenal that stores weapons sent over from France during the Revolutionary War. After the war, President George Washington commissioned a factory for the building of weapons and the arsenal in Springfield became the Armory.
“So it has this very old history and it also has kind if a literary history because Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went to Springfield on his honeymoon and wrote the poem “The Arsenal of Springfield in 1845,” she said, referring to Longfellow’s patently anti-war poem.
Today the original arsenal is the site of the Armory Museum, which is part of the National Parks Service.
Despite its interesting history, Loigman was stunned at how little she had known about the Armory.
“The more I read about it the more I realized this is a very significant, very important fascinating place and nobody knows about it. I grew up 15 minutes from it and I didn’t know about it,” she exclaimed. “The more I thought about it, the more I knew I wanted to write about sisters who had problems with each other and they were going to move to Springfield. Then I realized I could include all of that family story and drama but set it at the Armory, because I wanted to bring out the characters of all those women in these different jobs who worked there during the war. I never set out to write a World War II story and it’s really not a war story because it doesn’t talk about the war in Europe at all. It’s a home front story, and it’s about that sisterhood of women working at the Armory.”
She also mentions real several real places in Springfield in the book, like Johnson’s bookstore and Steiger’s Department Store, two beloved businesses that closed years ago.
“All of the places are real. I had to go through the Springfield Republican to see what was there [in 1942] as opposed to what I remember…I think people reading it will feel that connection. I hope they do…It’s so nice when people feel like there’s a piece of their history in a book and that it’s special.”
Her readers will also always find Jewish characters.
“When I was first writing The Two-Family House I was just writing about this family because I had them in my head. I didn’t think when I first started writing stories that it had to have Jewish themes,” Loigman said. “But with everything that is going on in the world right now, it has become very important to me to have Jewish stories represented in my work because I’m worried that we might not have them forever. And I want to tell them. I do feel like that is an important thing in the world right now – to tell Jewish stories.”
Literatour presents Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of The Wartime Sisters on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. at the Springfield JCC. Admission is free for JCC members and $5 for the general public. To register, email email@example.com or call (413) 739.4715, ext. 308.