By Sarah White
When I saw Jell-O Girls: A Family History on a “new nonfiction” list recently, it caught my eye, since I’m researching and writing about another 20th century company with the intent to produce a social history/memoir. I can always use more examples of how others approach this hybrid, rather niche genre.
This book weaves together several stories: an intergenerational memoir about motherhood and loss is the dominant thread, which features grandmother Midge, mother Mary, and Allie, author of this memoir. Other threads include the social history of Jell-O as a cultural object and an investigation into the mysterious LeRoy Girls, a connection I’ll explain in a moment.
As heirs to the Jell-O fortune, the three generations of women grew up with wealth the author barely mentions, and which the family achieved through a shrewd business deal rather than old-fashioned values like innovation and hard work. Orator Francis Woodward (owner of Genesee Pure Food Company and great-uncle-in-law to Midge) acquired the brand from its inventor, a cough syrup manufacturer, in 1899.
Author Allie Rowbottom has written a decent feminist take-down of Jell-O and the femininity it enshrined. Women and girls in Jell-O advertisements are just like the gelatinous dessert they shill—dainty, sweet, malleable, and transparent. “So easy even a child can do it” was the product’s first claim to fame, and its first advertisements featured a Kewpie-like girl-child preparing her dish to please adults. That girl became the role model for generations of women in the Woodward family, and the silent servitude expected of women is a recurring motif in the book. Like the cheerful women smoothly managing their households in the Jell-O ad campaigns who don’t hunger for a role outside that household, this book speaks to the sweet smothering of female ambition and desire that was endemic in 20th-century America.
It can be troubling to read the woes of the rich—a certain “poor me” note wafts up from some pages—but the fact is, rich or poor, women live in a man’s world and patriarchy can spell trouble in every income bracket. Generations of Woodward women tried to conform to the “Jell-O mold.” Grandmother Midge loses her sense of self in motherhood she finds unrewarding. Mother Mary strives for a more creative life, but becomes increasingly obsessive about researching what she believes to be the “Jell-O curse.” Both die while their daughters are young—Midge when Mary is 14, Mary when Allie is still in her 20s.
I really enjoyed the corporate history threaded through the book, as the brand tried to keep up with women’s changing roles through second- and third-wave feminism—its reinvention as a child’s treat promoted by Bill Cosby is one memorable example.
Meanwhile, Rowbottom explores her mother’s obsession with “the Jell-O curse,” a family legend that was said to affect men, but which Mary began to believe was actually afflicted on the family’s women, and which she fought by turning to Seventies ideas of women’s power, embodied by witchcraft and goddesses. As Mary became progressively more ill with cancer, her art gave way to writing a memoir and researching the possible toxicity of being raised in a Jell-O town. Mary’s research and writing became source materials for Rowbottom’s own memoir.
Rowbottom writes about the entrapping conservative nature of Le Roy, New York–the small town where Jell-O was made—where trucks arrived with remnants from animal processing to be transformed into colorful boxes of flavored powder and a rainbow in the river, the color determined by each day’s factory production.
The Le Roy Girls storyline is the most perplexing in the book. The author became fascinated with a twitching condition that beset a group of high school girls in Le Roy in early 2012. Some likened it to the Salem witch trials; others linked their affliction to environmental toxins, still others to group psychosis, probably conversion disorder. Rowbottom tried to investigate the story, but was unable to make contact with any of the girls or their family. Her curiosity (obsession?) lies stillborn on the page.
Allie Rowbottom received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. It’s my guess that she set out to write about the Le Roy girls for her MFA project, but it didn’t pan out, and advisors encouraged her to write her family story instead. I just made that up, but doesn’t it sound believable?
I found this book a compelling read, in spite of some flaws that are well-noted on GoodReads and Amazon reviews. As I got to the final chapters, the creepy closeness between Allie and her mother began to bother me, as the mother’s cancer worsened and surgeries led to wound care that frankly, if I had the Jell-O fortune behind me, I’d hire a nurse to manage.
If you want to study how an earnest wordsmith with a talent for the well-turned phrase takes so many divergent parts and weaves a book, get yourself a copy of Jell-O Girls.
© 2018 Sarah White