A few weeks ago, I was watching my children endure life in the sweetest season…summer. They would swim, I would read. They would sleep in, I would read. They would stay up late, I would read. Then my favorite…they would read and so would I! Reading curled up in a beach towel and lost inside a story with one foot in the pool. On a recent summer Sunday, my children persuaded me to walk out of Barnes and Noble again with a heavy shopping bag and a lighter bank account. I was so excited about my new book, Jell-O Girls.
I used to think that when someone new moved in to the neighborhood, had a baby or was sick that the kindest thing to bring them was a Jell-O mold. I can only guess that this came somewhere from an American upbringing. Jell-O is a part of our culture. That Jell-O jingle rang in my head as I picked up Jell-O Girls…but don’t think that this story is upbeat! No, the Jell-O family history has a dark side. “Teaching women, it turns out, was a tenet of Jell-O’s marketing…Jell-O, so pliable, so good, teaching them how to mold themselves to match it, pliable and good.”
Allie Rowbottom, a descendant of the Jell-O fortune, weaves together her family history and the story of the famous American dessert that goes down easy…Jell-O. Rowbottom is a descendant of Orator Francis Woodward, an entrepreneur who bought the Jell-O patent for $450 in 1899 and sold it 26 years later for $67 million…plenty of money to fund several generations of heirs.
Rowbottom writes of “the Jell-O curse” in her family history. Many of her relatives succumbed to alcoholism, suicide, mysterious illnesses and many disappointments…the story behind Jell-O is much darker than the bright cherry mold we are used to seeing. Rowbottom’s grandmother, Midge, gave up her own dreams to write when she had children and later her mother Mary’s health complaints were ignored and dismissed as “hysterical” by doctors…resulting in a late cancer diagnosis. All the while, Jell-O girls were expected to maintain a cheery and shiny surface.
Rowbottom picks up the narrative from her mother Mary, who became bewitched with researching and documenting what she believed was a family curse, before she passed away in 2015.
Jell-O Girls is a mixture of family history and American history through a feminist lens…learning that the Jell-O curse was patriarchy. The very heart of Rowbottom’s Jell-O Girls intimate family history is the abiding mother-daughter love of Mary and Allie.
Go drape yourself across a cozy chair and read Jell-O Girls. It will leave you thinking about your grandmother and mother in the most compassionate way.