Yesterday's Magazette

9 – Weaving Family Stories Into Historical Fiction

swinging-sisters.jpg

 

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Many gerontologists believe that reminiscing and Life Review is not only beneficial, but necessary to one’s well-being. People of all ages are delving into the past and writing about themselves and their ancestors. Still others scoff, “We’re ordinary people; there’s nothing interesting about our family.”

Take another look; dig deeper, ask questions. One or more of those ancestors might pique your curiosity and become your muse. Material from my family history has lent itself to published essays, reminiscences and nonfiction articles. One story took root and gradually blossomed into historical fiction.

Swinging Sisters begins in rural Minnesota, where a talented musician, Mary McLaughlin Jones, teaches her four young daughters to play every instrument available to her. By the time the girls are teenagers, they’re providing entertainment at community social events. The Jones Girls’ repertoire runs the gamut from classics to current jazz tunes of the Roaring Twenties.

After the family moves to San Antonio, Hazel, Gladys, Dorothy, and Evelyn tour with the Texas Theater Circuit, playing at rodeos, banquets, and private parties. In 1930, the sisters and two other women form the Texas Rangerettes. The swing band, whose theme song is “We’re All Pals Together,” makes enough of a splash that Variety and Billboard feed fans’ appetites with frequent tidbits about the swinging, singing cowgirls.

Swinging Sisters is a glimpse behind the curtain at one of many female orchestras that roamed the country during the Depression. Considered novelty acts, these musicians were applauded more for their looks than talent. Club owners claimed that when it came to “canary bands,” men looked first and listened second. But these early feminists challenged chauvinistic views and proved they could compete in a man’s world, paving the way for hundreds of female bands to flourish during World War II.

Again, these women were not taken seriously as musicians. Dubbed “Swing Shift Maisies,” they were viewed as patriotic groups, substitutes for the real thing (men). After the war, the musicians union pressured orchestras to hire veterans, and most of the female groups disbanded. With the advent of television, the big bands gradually disappeared, too.

The story of the Texas Rangerettes alone was ample material for a book, but that’s only half the story. In 1938, at the peak of popularity, the Jones sisters secretly bid farewell to the razzle-dazzle of show biz and, along with their widowed mother, began a radically different career. Paramount Studio cameramen camped on their doorstep, hoping to film this history-making event, but were turned away. Fans learned the story through newspaper headlines.

My article about the Rangerettes has appeared in several widely circulated magazines and newspapers. After each publication, I received letters and phone calls from readers who remembered the entertainers and often wondered what happened to them. I realized this story was more than family lore; it had appeal on many levels, as well as historical value.

After an independent filmmaker saw the article in the Tampa Tribune, she contacted me. She suggested she would write a screenplay based on the material, with me acting as consultant. While flattered, I was uneasy about releasing my information to someone who might have a different vision of how to tell the story. I turned down the contract and wrote Swinging Sisters.

This unique tale was a gift presented to me through family history. I felt a responsibility to tell it with respect for those involved, even though they’re deceased. But in order to adapt the idea into a book, it needed fictional action and dialogue to breathe life into the characters. That’s when the writing became fun—and creative. For instance, most bands in those days traveled by train, but I put the Rangerettes in a 1928 Packard hearse, which provided misadventure and trouble along the way. And so the story grew.

Writer Studs Terkel said when he was interviewing relatives for his family history, someone said to him, “You should ask Florence about that. She knows everything.” He advised others to “find your Florence.”

Good idea. Listen to the stories. You might learn, say, that your spinster great-aunt Vera had a secret admirer who sent flowers and love notes several times a year. And that her jealous, unhappily married sister knew who the man was, but never revealed it to Vera.
Don’t overlook that know-it-all Florence herself. She could become a character in your next story or novel.

*Read more about The Swinging Sisters at: http://www.madonnadrieschristensen.com

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