Loose Lips

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If you crossed Mitford, North Carolina, with Peyton Place, you might come up with Runnymede, Maryland, the most beguiling of Southern towns. In Loose Lips, Rita Mae Brown revisits Runnymede and the beloved characters introduced in Six of One and Bingo, serving up an exuberant portrayal of small-town sins and Southern mores, set against a backdrop of homefront life during World War II.

"I'm afraid life is passing me by," Louise told her sister.

"No, it's not," Juts said. "Life can't pass us by. We are life."

In the picturesque town of Runnymede, everyone knows everyone else's business, and the madcap antics of the battling Hunsenmeir sisters, Julia (Juts) and Louise, have kept the whole town agog ever since they were children. Now, in the fateful year of 1941, with America headed for war, the sisters are inching toward forty...and Juts is unwise enough to mention that unspeakable reality to her sister.

The result is a huge brawl that litters Cadwalder's soda fountain with four hundred dollars' worth of broken glass. To pay the debt, the sisters choose a surprisingly new direction. Suddenly they are joint owners of The Curl 'n' Twirl beauty salon, where discriminating ladies meet to be primped, permed, and pampered while dishing the town's latest dirt.

As Juts and Louise become Runnymede's most unlikely new career women, each faces her share of obstacles. Restless Juts can't shake her longing for a baby, while holier-than-thou Louise is fit to be tied over her teenage daughter's headlong rush toward scandal. As usual, the sisters rarely see eye to eye, and there are plenty of opinions to go around. Even the common bond of patriotic duty brings wildly unexpected results when the twosome joins the Civil Air Patrol, watching the night sky for German Stukas. But loose lips can sink even the closest relationships, and Juts and Louise are about to discover that some things are best left unsaid.

Spanning a decade in the lives of Louise, Juts, and their nearest and dearest, including the incomparable Celeste Chalfonte, Loose Lips is an unforgettable tale of love and loss and the way life can always throw you a curveball. By turns poignant and hilarious, it is deepened by Rita Mae Brown's unerring insight into the human heart.


"Juts, Wheezie, and the rest of Runnymede pour an intensity into life we should all aspire to."
--Chicago Sun-Times review of Bingo


Life will turn you inside out. No matter where you start you'll end up someplace else even if you stay home. The one thing you can count on is that you'll be surprised.

For the Hunsenmeir sisters, life didn't just turn them inside out, it tossed them upside down, then right side up. Perhaps it wasn't life whirling them around like the Whip ride at the fair. They upended each other.

April 7, 1941, shimmered, a light wind sending Louise's tulips swaying. Spring had triumphantly arrived in Runnymede, which straddled the Mason-Dixon line. The residents of this small, beautiful town, built around a square before the Revolutionary War, waxed ecstatic since springtime warmth had arrived early this fateful year. Probably every year is fateful to someone or other, but some years everyone remembers. On April 7, though, Fate seemed far away, shaking up countries across the Atlantic Ocean.

Julia Ellen, "Juts," slammed the door to her sister Louise's house. She pursed her lipstick-coated lips and blew a low note then a higher note, like a towhee bird. Snotty bird-watchers like Orrie Tadia Mojo, Louise's best friend from her schoolgirl days, called it a Rufous-sided towhee. Juts always pronounced it two-ey, since it uttered the note twice.

Hearing no response, Juts whistled again. Finally she yelled, "Wheezer, where the hell are you?" Still no answer.

Juts had celebrated her thirty-sixth birthday on March 6. She'd always possessed megawatts of energy, but as she zoomed through her thirties she accumulated even more energy, the way some people accumulated wrinkles. The only person who could keep up with her was Louise, four years older; since Louise lied shamelessly about her birthday everyone "forgot" her exact age except Juts, who held it in reserve should she need to whack her sister into line. Cora, their mother, remembered also but she was far too sweet to remind her elder daughter, who was having a fit and falling in it over turning forty. This momentous occasion had just occurred on March 25. Even Juts, out of pity, pretended Louise was thirty-nine at the birthday party.

Both sisters roared through life, although they roared in different keys. Juts was definitely a C major while Louise, an E minor, could never resist a melancholy swoon.

Juts stubbed out her Chesterfield in the glass ashtray with the thin silver band around the edge.

"Louise!" she shouted as she opened the back door and stepped out.

"I'm up here," Louise called from the roof.

Julia craned her neck; the sun was in her eyes. "What are you doing up there? Oh, wait, why should I ask? You're singing 'Nearer My God to Thee.'"

"I'll thank you to shut your sacrilegious mouth."

"Yeah, yeah, you walk on water. I came over here to take you to lunch at Cadwalder's but you're such a pill I think I'll go by myself."

"Don't leave me."

"Why not?"

Louise hesitated. She loathed asking her younger sister to help her because she knew she'd have to pay her back somewhere, sometime, and it would be when she least wanted to return a favor.

"Oh." Julia tried to conceal her delight as she spied the white heavy ladder behind the forsythia bushes, a rash of blinding yellow. "Gee, Sis, how awful." She started walking away.

"Julia, Julia, don't you leave me up here!"

"Why not? I can't even crack a joke around you but what it gets turned into a spiritual moment by Runnymede's only living saint. Oh, let me amend that, by the great state of Maryland's only living saint."

"What about Pennsylvania?"

"We don't live in Pennsylvania."

"Half of Runnymede is over the line."

"You mean over the top, don't you?" Julia crossed her arms over her chest.

"You know what I mean." Irritation crept into Louise's well-modulated soprano.

"Pennsylvania is so much bigger than Maryland, kind of like a tarantula compared to a ladybug. I'm sure there are lots of living saints in Pennsylvania, probably in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but then again—"

Louise cut her off. She knew when Juts was heating up for one of her rambles. "Will you please put the ladder up?"

"No. Mary and Maizie will be home from school in two hours. They can put it up."

Louise's younger daughter, named after Julia Ellen, had been given the nickname Maizie to distinguish her from her aunt.

"Now listen, Juts, this isn't funny. I'm stuck and those noisy kids might not hear me when they get home. Put the ladder up."

"What do I get out of it?"

"Maybe you should ask what you don't get out of it." As Louise edged toward the roofline, little bits of asphalt sparkles skidded out under her heels.

"Bet it's getting hot up there."

"A tad."

"What are you offering me?"

"No more lectures on your smoking or drinking."

"I hardly drink at all," Julia snapped. "I am so sick of you claiming that I drink too much."

"I have yet to see a Saturday night that you don't fill with whiskey sours."

"One night out of seven—it's Saturday night, Louise, and I like to go out with my husband."

"You'd go out whether he was here or not."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means you can't live without male attention and if I were your husband I wouldn't let you out of my sight."

"Well, you're not my husband." Julia dragged out the heavy ladder but didn't prop it against the gutter of the roof. "How come your nose is out of joint, anyway?"





Reader's Guide

1. In the novel’s opening pages, Louise is stuck on the roof and asks Juts to bring her the ladder so she can get down. Juts insists she won’t help unless Louise hands over her Easter hat. How would you describe the relationship between the Hunsenmeir sisters? How does their wisecracking reveal their affection for each other?

2. Chapter Two introduces the glamorous and quixotic Celeste: “Celeste Chalfonte, beautiful, willful, and in her middle sixties, unfolded the linen napkin on her lap. Across from her, Ramelle Chalfonte–her lover of thirty-nine years and the wife of Celeste’s brother, Curtis–did the same.” How does the world of Celeste and Ramelle compare to that of the other characters? What do all of Runnymede’s residents have in common?

3. When Juts and Louise are arrested for a disturbance at Cadwalder’s drugstore, they must find a way to pay $398 in damages. What do their schemes, and the venture they eventually decide to undertake, say about their personalities?

4. Describe the relationship between Chessy’s mother and Juts. What does Mrs. Smith believe about the Hunsenmeirs? How does this increasingly become problematic for Chessy? What does he do about it?

5. What motivates Extra Billy Bitters to drive Mary toward Baltimore? What motivates Mary to fire a gun out the window? Are Louise’s beliefs about Billy and Mary grounded in any truth? How did you react when Billy crashes into the statue of Yankee general George Gordon Meade?

6. How do Buster and Yoyo, Juts’s dog and cat, create a scene at Christ Lutheran Church? Describe how the personification of these animals contributes to the novel’s tone.

7. In a moment of anguish, Celeste wonders if she needs a fling: “One last quest. A quest is a pursuit, she thought, her hand reaching for the chrome door handle. What is to pursue, for what could be worth having that would flee you? Whatever is worth having is within, and if you find it, others will come to you. Pursuit is antithetical to gain.” Do you agree with Celeste’s thinking? How does Celeste’s introspection end with humor?

8. What happens when Chessy takes dance lessons from Trudy Archer? Was it inevitable for Juts to learn of Chessy’s infidelity?

9. Why does Hansford Hunsenmeir suddenly arrive in Runnymede? Why has he been gone all these years? How do Cora and the girls feel about his coming back? Have you ever had an estranged relative or friend suddenly re-enter your life? If so, how did it affect you?

10. How successful are the sisters with the Curl ‘n’ Twirl? Does it help that Paul labels a big blackboard “Gossip Central”? How do Juts and Louise encourage kids to come in for haircuts? How does Junior McGrail stay in business?

11. When Mary reveals that she is pregnant, why does Juts try to persuade Louise about what to do?

12. What is the reaction in Runnymede to news that America has entered the war? How did you react to the fire at Moe Nojo’s meat packing plant? What is the significance of the novel’s title in these chapters? Could this narrative have taken place in another time?

13. What does Juts long for? What does Josephine Smith think about having an adopted grandchild? What is the cause of Chessy’s mother’s hostility? Have longstanding family feuds played a part in your own family history? If so, do both sides remember the original grievance?

14. What happens when Juts and Wheezy pull duty for the Civil Air Patrol? Do the sisters reveal their mistake? When Chester leaves Trudy, was his marriage to Juts likely to survive? How do Juts and Chessy manage to become parents?

15. Why does Cora pay Josephine a call? Why does Josephine tell her, “I died those long years ago”? Does Josephine ultimately recognize Nickel as a member of the family?

16. How does Juts feel about being a mother? Why do you think she lets Rillma visit Nickel? What does Louise have to say about it? What is significant about the way Nickel finds out that she was adopted?

17. How does Louise feel about Maizie’s marrying Vaughn? By the novel’s closing pages, how do Juts and Louise feel about marriage and children? Describe Juts’s theory about the “memory bank.” Do you feel similarly about passing on knowledge and experiences to future generations? Do you have an image or metaphor you use in your family to describe leaving a legacy?

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