A novel of the vaudeville circuit, circa 1919.
An ordinary working-class family in Johnson City, New York, is threatened with penury when breadwinner Frank, a usually sober boot stitcher, gets into an uncharacteristic bar brawl and injures his hand. Fortunately for the Turners, however, wife Ethel, aka Mother, has always had a yen for the stage. She quickly molds her four daughters, Kit, Winnie, Gert, and Nell, ranging in age from 13 to 22, into a vaudeville act, the titular tumblers. (Nell, a war widow with an infant, is based on the author’s great-grandmother.) The group attracts an agent who sends them, with Mother as chaperone and producer, on a tour of upstate New York’s vaudeville theaters. (Every small town near the tracks appears to have one.) From here, any further resemblance to the musical Gypsy unfortunately ends. The new troupers encounter a motley crew of performers, including Tip, an African-American tap dancing virtuoso; Case and Wheeler, a Yiddish comedy team; and Joe and Lucy, Italian immigrant musicians who are on the boards for the same reason as the Turners: avoiding poverty. Complications ensue: bigoted pigeon wranglers get Tip fired—in retaliation, Winnie liberates their flock—and a grifter steals Mother’s hidden cash. Tip reappears during another gig, and he and Gert fall in love, risking arrest for miscegenation. Winnie, whose ambition is to go to college and become a doctor, also falls hard for Joe. Meanwhile, Mother carries on a flirtation with an orangutan handler. Eventually, Frank regains the use of his hand, but by this time, the Turner women are too stage-struck to resume respectable life in Johnson City. Winnie and Gert alternate as first-person narrators, but their voices are virtually indistinguishable. Fay handles the story’s issues of racial and ethnic prejudice with a gingerliness which verges on anachronism, and contemporary locutions, like “move on with her life,” further dispel the 1919 atmosphere.
Fay’s gentle humor and risk-averse approach don't do justice to her rollicking subject matter.