The Power of Female Friendship, Liberation and Stardom in The Sunshine Girls by Molly Fader
By Eleanor Bowskill, Lily Baldanza and Victoria Bromley
With its glistening narrative of female empowerment and friendship, Molly Fader's latest novel is a burst of literary sunshine. With a strong focus on 1960s sexism, occupational limitations and misogynistic ideologies, this novel presents a triumphant account of the challenges that women faced in post-war America. Further still, it demonstrates how womanhood can provide a source of support in these difficult times.
Five decades later, sisters Clara and Abbie are grappling with the mysteries buried with their late mother, BettyKay, and seek answers from Hollywood actress Kitty Devereux, who arrives unannounced to her Greensboro funeral, claiming to have befriended their mother after the pair became roommates at nursing school. From her college years in a small rural town, days living in California, to serving in the Vietnam War, the sisters learn startling secrets and untold truths about their mother and come to terms with the fact their lives, as they know them, are about to change forever.
The Sunshine Girls sits comfortably within the historical fiction genre, a tale of female comradery painted over a backdrop of turmoil and conflict in Vietnam. In these earlier chapters, an eerie element of dramatic irony can be detected, as the war became a chance to escape individual circumstances and serve a noble cause. Yet, for Jenny Hopkins, the decision to train and volunteer as a nurse was made in recognition of the fact that her chances of survival would be greater than those of a male soldier. Fader imagined that Jenny’s distrust of the government was “by virtue of being Black in America” and after “hearing the rumblings of a draft” it was likely she knew it would result in the disproportionate drafting of young Black men.
Despite her bleak home life, the fact remains that BettyKay would have been sheltered from the world outside the farm on Wolff Road. She was not exposed to the same harsh realities as her friends, Jenny and Kitty. Restricted to claustrophobic, small-town traditions, BettyKay described her parents’ presence as “looming large” in her modest life. For Fader, her protagonist needed to “believe a new narrative about herself” and she knew for a long time that “education was her ticket out.” Some of this ability to grow and change was innate to BettyKay; she was “hungry” for it. In addition, the tragic death of her childhood sweetheart “opened up her life even further” as she was forced to be brave and follow her impulse for new experiences around the world.
The lucid depiction of nursing school illustrated throughout The Sunshine Girls was heavily rooted in the stories Fader was told by her mother, from her own experience at that time. However, as to the spread of countercultural movements like the Black Panthers and student-led sit-ins, these were not ideas that she had experienced at her school in Iowa but that she knew to have spread across other campuses. Fader suspected that there was a “huge investment” at that time in “keeping the status quo” and in “letting women have some freedom but not too much.” It was soon clear that the women themselves would be the ones to decide just “how much” information and independence would suffice.
In regards to the writing process, Fader told us that when writing in different periods “there comes a time when you have done tons of research and you just have to remember people are people and you’re telling a story.” Regardless of the period, she explained that it is always best to be thrown into a story and “you just have to leap.” For Fader, this sense of trust is what helped her “grow as a writer” and once she was into the groove of it all, the historical aspect was a lot more fun. There was a sense in which, when the “stakes were higher, the scenes were more dramatic.”
There’s an authenticity about The Sunshine Girls reflected in those moments from Fader’s life that were knitted into the fabric of the book. In the novel, BettyKay and Kitty exchanged buttons as a talisman of their friendship, and it was touching to discover that this endearing ritual was one that her mother had engaged in with a neighbour. The buttons would appear in “some hilarious way” from being “baked in bread or pickled or sewn on a nightgown.” Fader added that she loves “putting details of the small town where she grew up” in books, and it’s this transparency with real life which makes her novel so authentic.
Over the past few years, there has been a surge in books about celebrity culture and Hollywood stardom. Fader explained that Kitty, “a legend of stage and screen,” turning up to the funeral to dispel everything two daughters knew about their mother came “fully formed” to her in a dream. Although this dream occurred after Fader read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, it really is “a chicken or the egg” dilemma in terms of which came first.