Cakewalk

A Novel
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Continuing in the exuberant tradition of Six of One, Bingo, and Loose Lips, New York Times bestselling author Rita Mae Brown returns to her much-loved fictional hamlet of Runnymede, whose memorable citizens are welcoming both the end of the Great War and the beginning of a new era.
 
The night a riot breaks out at the Capitol Theater movie house—during a Mary Pickford picture, no less—you can bet that the Hunsenmeir sisters, Louise and Julia, are nearby. Known locally as Wheezie and Juts, the inimitable, irrepressible, distinctly freethinking sisters and their delightful circle of friends are coming of age in a shifting world—and are determined to understand their place in it. Across town, the well-to-do Chalfonte siblings are preparing for the upcoming wedding of brother Curtis. But for youngest sister Celeste, the celebration brings about a change she never expected and a lesson about love she’ll not soon forget.
 
Set against the backdrop of America emerging from World War I, Cakewalk is an outrageous and affecting novel about a small town where ideas of sin and virtue, love and sex, men and women, politics and religion, can be as divided as the Mason-Dixon Line that runs right through it—and where there’s no problem that can’t be cured by a good yarn and an even better scotch. With her signature Southern voice, Rita Mae Brown deftly weaves generations of family stories into a spirited patchwork quilt of not-so-simple but joyously rich life.

Praise for Cakewalk

“[Cakewalk] is brimming over with [Rita Mae Brown’s] distinctive Southern voice that infuses every page with merriment, which allows her vibrant characters to take over the story and touch readers’ hearts. Her depictions of the inhabitants and the era are pitch-perfect as are the many subplots. Readers will feel as if they are living in Runnymede; running around with the teenagers, eavesdropping on the matrons planning the annual cakewalk and hiding in the closet of the wealthy families. An utterly delightful story.”RT Book Reviews

“Brown has said that the Runnymede novels, starting with Six of One, are the ones she was born to write. . . . This is more loving domestic comedy of small-town life when times were simpler. Recommended for fans of Brown and beyond.”Library Journal

“Two independent and free-thinking sisters, Louise and Julia Hunsenmeir (called Wheezie and Juts), push against the old-fashioned ways of drinking, dancing, and courting. . . . Characters were inspired by Brown’s own mother and sister, adding realism and depth to this uplifting story. Fans of Amy Hill Heath and Mary Kay Andrews will eat up this multigenerational ‘slice-of-life’ novel.”Booklist

“There seems to be no end to [Rita Mae Brown’s] imagination, inventiveness, or storytelling artistry. . . . What is [Cakewalk] about? Life, love, baseball, war, peace, good whiskey, fashion, sex, religion, friendship–all in a rollicking and lively story that just keeps rolling along at a brisk pace. Ms. Brown paints such vivid scenes. . . . [Cakewalk is] entertaining, outrageous, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and great fun.”—My Merri Way

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

“[Cakewalk] is brimming over with [Rita Mae Brown’s] distinctive Southern voice that infuses every page with merriment, which allows her vibrant characters to take over the story and touch readers’ hearts. Her depictions of the inhabitants and the era are pitch-perfect as are the many subplots. Readers will feel as if they are living in Runnymede; running around with the teenagers, eavesdropping on the matrons planning the annual cakewalk and hiding in the closet of the wealthy families. An utterly delightful story.”RT Book Reviews

“Brown has said that the Runnymede novels, starting with Six of One, are the ones she was born to write. . . . This is more loving domestic comedy of small-town life when times were simpler. Recommended for fans of Brown and beyond.”Library Journal

“Two independent and free-thinking sisters, Louise and Julia Hunsenmeir (called Wheezie and Juts), push against the old-fashioned ways of drinking, dancing, and courting. . . . Characters were inspired by Brown’s own mother and sister, adding realism and depth to this uplifting story. Fans of Amy Hill Heath and Mary Kay Andrews will eat up this multigenerational ‘slice-of-life’ novel.”Booklist

“There seems to be no end to [Rita Mae Brown’s] imagination, inventiveness, or storytelling artistry. . . . What is [Cakewalk] about? Life, love, baseball, war, peace, good whiskey, fashion, sex, religion, friendship–all in a rollicking and lively story that just keeps rolling along at a brisk pace. Ms. Brown paints such vivid scenes. . . . [Cakewalk is] entertaining, outrageous, thought-provoking, nostalgic, and great fun.”—My Merri Way

Praise for Rita Mae Brown’s Runnymede novels

Six of One

“Joyous, passionate and funny.”The Washington Post Book World

“No matter how quirky or devilish, Brown’s people cavort in an atmosphere of tenderness. . . . It is refreshing to encounter this celebration of human energy.”Chicago Sun-Times
 
Bingo
 
“Genuinely funny.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Vividly drawn characters . . . and tart, loving humor.”—Self
 
Loose Lips
 
“Surprises . . . come from Rita Mae Brown’s comic timing and her affection for eccentrics.”—The Seattle Times
 
“[Brown] does an admirable job of portraying the effects World War II has on one small American town.”—The Arizona Republic

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

January 31, 1920

Saturday

Excited because Pollyanna, staring Mary Pickford, was now showing at the Capitol Theater on the corner of Frederick Road and Runnymede Square, Louise Hunsenmeir, nineteen, and her younger sister, Juts, not quite fifteen, hurried through the light snow.

The elder sister shot out of her job at the Bon Ton department store as though she’d been fired from the cannon on the south side of the town’s center square. Julia, called Juts, ran to catch up with her as she flew from the store.

“Wheezie, hey!”

Slowing down a bit, the slender Louise called over her shoulder, “Come on, we’ll miss the first few minutes.”

The two trotted, slipping a bit, reaching the theater. A line, not long but long enough, curved down Frederick Road.

“Good. They won’t start the movie with people still outside.” A puff of frosty breath escaped Louise’s lips, artfully enhanced with a light shade of lipstick.

“Isn’t Orrie going to meet you?” Juts named Louise’s best friend.

“You know Orrie, she slides in at the last minute.” Louise peered up the line, then whispered, “Get a load of Lottie Rhodes.”

Juts stepped a bit out of the line to look at the attractive young woman: too much lipstick, too much of everything.

When the line started moving, Juts then said, voice low, “She’s got the same coat you do, only yours looks better on you.”

The two fought night and day but were best friends when they weren’t fighting. Louise smiled. “You know how she is in summer. At least she’s covered up in the snow.”

“How do you know? You can’t see the front of her and she loves to show it off. Maybe she has snow in her cleavage. And you know who is just as bad? Dimps. She pushes her bosoms on the boys at school, then pretends she has to squeeze by them. Ugh.”

Delilah Rhodes Jr., called Dimps Jr., as her mother is Big Dimps, obviously had studied her sister Lottie’s ploys for male attention. Both of the Rhodes girls, drilled by their mother, teased but drew the line. Big Dimps ran the cosmetics counter at the Bon Ton. She made certain her girls, cosmetics artfully applied, looked alluring. Given a lackluster marriage, Big Dimps’s view of same had narrowed to a man’s financial capacity or potential for the future. The purpose of this bosom barrage was to ensnare the richest young man possible. As Big Dimps felt she had married beneath her, she was determined her two daughters wouldn’t make the same mistake. Surely they would make other ones.

“I can’t see Lottie’s date,” Louise grumbled.

“Me neither. He’s at the window, I think.”

Paul Trumbull, new to Runnymede, an army veteran from the Great War, purchased two tickets. He’d been seeing Lottie over the fall, a desultory courtship discouraged by Big Dimps because he was a lowly housepainter. As a small rebellion against her mother, this made him somewhat more attractive to Lottie. Also, Paul was quite handsome. Sooner or later Lottie would cave to her mercenary matrimonial purpose, but for now, why not string along as many young men as possible?

Southerners referred to such fellows as conquests. Lottie hoped to be spoken of as a woman of many conquests, a trail of broken hearts left behind her.

Juts took the ticket her sister had bought for her once they’d reached the ticket booth. “Thank you.”

“When you get a job, you can take me.”

“Soon,” Juts promised.

“You have two more years of school.”

“I’m bored. I’ll finish tenth grade. That’s enough.”

The two greatly resembled one another. Louise had attended Immaculata Academy, paid for by Celeste Chalfonte, their mother’s employer, since Louise evidenced musical ability. Louise had converted to Catholicism. Juts, on the other hand, attended South Runnymede High School. She dutifully went to the Lutheran church and didn’t believe a word of it.

They walked down the right aisle of the clean movie house, finding three seats near the front.

“I’ll go in first. You can save a seat for Orrie,” Juts suggested.

Louise sat down, did not yet take off her coat.

Still in her coat a few rows behind them, Lottie also sat holding a seat for Paul, who was buying popcorn.

Just as Paul entered the aisle the lights flickered, the house went dark, the organist began to play. The film title appeared, Keith Morgan, the organist, hit a few notes, and a rustle of anticipation filled the theater.

Squinting, popcorn in hand, Paul walked by Lottie, who had turned to talk to one of her girlfriends down the row. The theater, filled with young people, grew quiet.

He came upon the empty seat, noticed the coat, sat down before Louise could protest, put the popcorn box toward her, then kissed her.

Louise hauled off and slapped him. “How dare you! You beast!”

“Hey, don’t you touch my sister.” Juts leaned over Louise.

Stunned, Paul couldn’t find his voice but the usher found him.

Tall Walter Rendell yanked Paul out of his seat. “Come on, bub.”

“I didn’t do anything. I mean, I thought she was someone else.”

“That’s what they all say.” Walter dragged Paul up the aisle, popcorn falling from the red-­and-­white box Paul grasped.

Having seen the kiss, Lottie shrieked, “You two-­timer. I never want to see you again.” She stood up and smacked him with her purse.

“Lottie?”

She smacked him again.

Seeing a furious Lottie, Louise’s mood improved considerably.

Walter continued to drag an increasingly resistant Paul.

Proclaiming for all to hear, Louise enunciated quite clearly, “Lottie, if you can’t keep your boyfriend happy, it’s not my fault.”

Juts laughed out loud, as did others.

Orrie finally arrived in the theater. Baffled as to the uproar, Orrie sidestepped the two men just as Paul hauled off and belted the usher.

“Goddammit, I didn’t come home from the war to put up with this!”

Walter struck back, hitting the smaller but wiry man in the chest. Ever happy to help a brother veteran, other young men jumped Walter. Walter’s friends jumped the vets.

Louise, Juts, and Orrie turned, sitting on the backs of the seats in front of them, as most other people did, to enjoy this show.

Inflamed by the insult, Lottie stomped away, her largesse bouncing with each determined stride, pocketbook in hand. She swung it at Louise, who ducked.

“You hussy. Kissing my date.”

Louise ducked another swing. “Lottie, he kissed me.”

“If he’d known he was kissing Runnymede’s religious nut, he would have gagged.”

Louise cocked her fist, landing a good punch right on Lottie’s left glory.

“I’ll throttle you.” Lottie dropped her pocketbook, reaching to choke Louise.

Juts blocked Lottie’s hands. “You touch my sister and I’ll tear one of those zeppelins right off your body.”

Orrie added to the defense, but Lottie’s friends in the theater came to her aid.

Yashew Gregorivitch was a big shambling classmate of Louise’s. He’d left school to join the navy. He was stuck down front, fighting to get up to his friends, who were all fighting to help Paul. He threw his popcorn box over his shoulder.

“You’ll get popcorn in my organ!” yelled Keith.

Yashew began to part people in the aisle like Moses did the Red Sea. “For Christ’s sake, the only organ you need to worry about is between your legs.” Whistles blew, but that stopped no one. The house lights went up, all the better to see who you were punching. Harper Wheeler, a young cop on the beat for South Runnymede, pushed into the fray. Outnumbered, he yelled for the ticket taker to call for reinforcements. And he asked the fellow also to call the North Runnymede police department.

Within fifteen minutes, police from both sides of the Mason-­Dixon Line filled the theater, hauling out pugilists, one by one. The paddywagons filled up with men.

A confused Harper asked the police chief, now on the scene, “What do we do with the women?”

Chief Archibald Cadwalder, a handsome man now in his mid-­sixties, grinned and answered, “Get the hell out of their way.”

As the two paddywagons drove off in their separate directions, the girls finally wore themselves out. They tore posters off the wall, emptied out the popcorn machine, but other than that, most of the damage they did was to one another.

Al Dexter, the theater owner, also called by ticket taker Robbie Anson, flicked the lights then pushed the females out of the theater. He locked the doors, leaning against them.

“My God, Robbie, what in the hell happened?”

“I don’t rightly know. I heard Louise Hunsenmeir holler and then all hell broke loose.”

Al surveyed the damage. “Could have been worse. Tell you what, Robbie, let me call my wife so she doesn’t have a cow since I’ll miss dinner. Then you and I and Walter can clean this up.”

“Archie took Walter in the paddywagon, boss.”

“Ah.” He thought some more. “Well, let me call her. We can at least sweep up the popcorn.”

Leaving open the door, he walked into his small office. The upright phone squatted on his desk. He dialed knowing full well that telephone operator Martha Shortride was listening in.

“Honey pie, I’ll miss supper—­”

Minta Mae interrupted him. “Why? You know the Creightons are coming.”

“There’s been a, well, a riot among my customers. I’ve got a lot of cleaning up to do.”

“A what? A what? Alvin, if any one of those rioting miscreants is a Sister of Gettysburg, you tell me, you tell me right now and I will eighty-­six her, oh yes, I will.”

Minta Mae Dexter presided over the Sisters of Gettysburg, which she considered the pinnacle of acceptance for anyone living in North Runnymede. The Daughters of the Confederacy, South Side, obviously thought differently.

“Honey, these were young people.” The minute this escaped Al’s mouth he was sorry, adding quickly, “Most of your troops, sugar, lack your youthful good looks.”

Smiling, she replied sweetly, “Were there any Daughters there?”

“If there were, I would have had to call an ambulance. Those poor girls need canes now and they can barely see to swat anyone.”

That satisfied Minta Mae. “Well, you just get here when you can, darling. If you’re late, I’ll keep Katie and she can warm up the food, but of course, you know Fannie Jump Creighton will want to know everything, so I hope you make it.”

“I’ll do my very best.”

He would, too, because when Minta Mae called him “darling,” a nighttime reward came his way. Al often wondered if other husbands were kept on thin sexual rations. They never discussed it.

Louise, Juts, and Orrie walked along the south corner of the square along with other ladies, to await the Emmitsburg Pike trolley. Lottie and her crew headed toward Baltimore Street to tend to one another’s wounds at Lottie’s house, a lovely white-­painted-­brick affair built in the mid–­eighteen hundreds.

Juts, the youngest of the group, laughed. “We look like something the cat drug in.”

Louise raised her voice. “I tore Lottie’s shirt. I nearly exposed her breasts then stopped myself. She’d enjoy it too much. You know, she would cry out, run out into the lobby, and let all the men see both of her assets. I hate her. I truly hate her.”

Boots Frothingham, a class ahead of Juts at South Runnymede High, chimed in. “We all do, Louise, and her sister is even worse.”

“You can’t get any worse.” The temperature had dropped into the twenties. Louise hoped the trolley would soon arrive.

“Oh, yes, Dimps Jr. is worse. She rouges her nipples,” Boots declared, and this was seconded by others in the group.

Louise was aghast. “What?”

“She does. In gym class when we shower, she turns her back, towels off, then goes to the mirror and dabs on a little rouge.” Boots blinked with disgust.

“Whatever for? Who is going to see them?” Dumbfounded, Louise was curious.

“When it’s warm, she wears a brassiere and a thin blouse. You can see, and you know what else she does? Oh, this is even worse.” Boots took a deep breath as everyone leaned forward toward her. “She will pick up a cold pop bottle and hold it next to her breast so her, you know, stands out.”

“She freezes her nipples!” twelfth grader Anselma Constantino shouted.

“Why do boys pay attention to all this?” Juts wondered. “We don’t care.” Juts considered the difficulties of protuberances. “Why would anyone want to get smacked in the face with a big breast? They get in the way.”

“You’d have to ask the boys,” Boots sensibly said.

Anselma airily answered this. “My brother says it gets them hard. Just thinking about breasts does it, so anyone pushing them onto a boy can usually get what she wants.”

Boots shook her head. “Anselma, that’s horrid.”

“Maybe, but that’s what he said. But he added, much as they like it, they would never marry a girl like that.”

“Oh, well, that’s a big relief,” Juts sarcastically said as the trolley at last pulled up to the corner.

Chapter Two

February 1, 1920

Sunday

Winter, long and cold this year, offered no relief. The light snow of yesterday became heavier. The trolleys still ran but people didn’t linger after church in the morning. Everyone knew how easy it was to get stranded. You couldn’t trust the automobiles either. Even with chains on the tires, a machine could get stuck in a snowdrift.

There were more and more automobiles in Runnymede. Trucks hauled tools and heavy supplies. Once businessmen figured out the cost of maintaining a truck, many switched because in some ways the machines proved easier to repair than horses. Even throwing a shoe could cost half a day’s work, because you had to get the animal to the blacksmith, and hope there wasn’t a backup and that he hadn’t quicked the hoof, which would keep the animal off hard work for some days. However, many folks still swore by their draft horses or their harness horses because they sure were reliable in snow and muck and they loved them to boot. It was harder to love a truck.

Louise and Juts lived at the top of Emmitsburg Pike on a small farm called Bumblebee Hill. The trolley line on Emmitsburg stopped at the bottom of the hill, which made for a strenuous walk down, but with a setting this beautiful, the journey was well worth it.

The young ladies’ mother, Cora Hunsenmeir, fed small, precisely cut logs into the wood-­burning stove and checked a pork roast, the glorious aroma of which filled the small wooden home, much to the delight of the dog and cat.

A chug, chug, chug drew Juts to the window.

“Momma, there’s a truck outside,” she exclaimed. “It’s one of Douglas Anson’s paint trucks.”

Cora wiped her hands on a dish towel, straightened her apron, hurried to the door, and opened it after a few knocks.

“Mrs. Hunsenmeir?” Cuts on his face, flowers in one hand and a small box in the other, Paul Trumbull raised his hat. “I’ve come to apologize.”

“Well, sweetie, no need to apologize in the cold. You come right on in here.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Reader's Guide

1. What are the main themes of the novel? Which do you find most thought-provoking?

2. The introduction says, “It’s never a good idea to get into an argument with a Marylander.” Did this statement affect your interpretation of the novel? If so, how? How does it play out in the rest of the story?

3. The town of Runnymede is practically a character in the novel. What does it mean to Wheezie and Juts? Celeste and Curtis? How would the story be different if it were set somewhere else? How does Runny- mede’s position straddling the Mason-Dixon line amplify the novel’s themes?

4. Discuss the significance of the title as it pertains to each character.

5. In chapter 6, Celeste reflects, “Some things are right under your nose. You don’t see them and when someone does, you wonder how you missed it.” How does this prove true for Celeste by the end of the novel? For Ramelle?

6. How would you describe the relationship between the Hunsenmeir sisters? How does their wisecracking reveal their affection for each other?

7. Discuss Celeste’s evolution throughout the story. What lessons does she learn about love? About life?

8. At the end of chapter 13, Celeste says to her sister, “You know I love you. . . . It’s just sometimes I can’t stand you.” What do you think she means by that? What other characters in Runnymede have this kind of relationship?

9. Who would you cast to play each character in a movie adaptation of
Cakewalk? Why?

10. What elements of Cakewalk are specific to the 1920s time period? What elements are timeless?

11. Paul and Louise share a second kiss at the end of chapter 15. How does their relationship change after that? How does it stay the same? How is this kiss different from their first?

12. Some of the characters in Cakewalk are based on Rita Mae Brown’s own family. Which characters, if any, remind you of your family or friends? What other books have themes of family centricity and small-town life intertwining?

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