Pages: 307 pages
Finished: Oct. 3, 2010
First Published: June 24, 2010
Genre: historical fiction, family drama
They had strung their shoes by the laces from a solitary elm before entering the woods edging the back field.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Penguin Group (Canada).
Reason for Reading: The early 1900s time frame and the New Brunswick setting appealed to me right away.
This book was brought to publication by Beverly Jensen's family after her death in 2003. The book consists of interconnected short stories which tell the tale of two sisters who grew up in New Brunswick, poor, on a farm where their alcoholic father raised them on his own. A couple of the stories had been previously published.
From the beginning chapter (ie. story) I was taken into this book and immersed into the lives of the Hillock family, not to come back to the reality of my own family until I had finished. Even when I was not reading, I was thinking about the characters. These stories are completely character driven and the readers becomes intimately familiar with the major players. The book is divided into Parts and starts off in 1916 with the mother dying in the childbirth of the 3rd daughter, 4th child. This utterly destroys the dynamics of the family as it was the mother who connected her family together with maternal and womanly love. The father is devastated at the loss of the only one he has ever loved who has ever made him gentle, and being a hard man to begin with, eking out a living from an unforgiving land and the dangerous sea he has always taken his down time with a bottle. This leaves him incapable of raising three children, nor of being able to show them love or compassion, though it is there. This part of the book grabs your heart and makes for compelling reading. Each story is set a few years ahead of the previous one as the children grow to mid/late teens.
For the rest of the book the story concentrates on Della the oldest sister, the more responsible of the two, and continues to tell her life story up till 1987. The book mostly is told in the third person but occasionally is told from the first person point of view of individual characters. Avis, the younger sister, who has her father's love of drink and is a beauty who lives vicariously with many men, is not explored as much but she does turn up and we continue to learn of her life. The stories now are spaced further apart often going ten year jumps as we follow this family drama. The bond between the sisters is always strong even when they are not getting along with each other and the deep feeling they have for each other shows up in many ways.
I loved this book! The stories mesh together well creating an episodic story telling format and I enjoyed the occasional first hand account from a character's point of view. This is not a happy story. The girls lead hard lives. There is emotional abuse, infedelity, prison, alcoholism, drunkeness, eking out a living, yearning to *be* somebody, the decline into infirmity and death. Yet through it all there are moments of true love from places you would least expect it and there are times that these moments are bittersweet. The only thing I was bothered by was that the brother, Dalton, hardly made any appearances once they had grown and I think his character would have been interesting to watch as well. Though I suppose that can be forgiven since the title does say "Sisters".
An interesting note, as I was reading the chapter near the end entitled "Wake" I got that deja vu feeling that I had read something entirely similar to this before, in fact that I had read it before which was baffling. So I turned to the copyright page and sure enough "Wake" had been previously published in The Best American Short Stories 2007 edition which I had read that year!
I recommend the book to those who enjoy family sagas and don't mind a story told in an episodic manner.
NB: This is included in my Canadian Book Challenge count because it largely takes place in New Brunswick, however, the author was American living in the nearby state of Maine.