Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-71796-2.
Reviewed by Mary Ann Moore
Posted on 06/27/2011
I couldn't resist a book called The Bird Sisters with its intriguing cover of bird images appearing as if ripped from the pages of a book. I'm glad I didn't, as this is a wonderful story told very well.
Elderly sisters Milly and Twiss of Spring Green, Wisconsin help to nurse injured birds back to health. They know about broken wings as well as broken hearts as they live with decades-old memories on the family farm.
Memories of the summer of 1947 are especially vivid and it's that unfolding story that makes the book as engaging as a mystery. First time novelist Rebecca Rasmussen makes the transitions from present to past elegantly and seamlessly. A chapter may end as the sisters "gazed at the changing colors of the sky" and the next takes the reader into the past: "When Twiss was a girl..."
A goldfinch which appears at the beginning continues to be referred to throughout, which is another way we know we're back in the present. Goldfinches are found at edges and borders and are a reminder of those in-between places that offer insight into other realms. The goldfinch is a fitting symbol, as the characters continue to gain insight with ever-deepening perceptions. That could be said of readers of the book as well.
The author has included many incidents of foreshadowing, such as Milly brushing shoulders with a boy called Asa at school, and her father saying to Twiss at the golf course: "You can't count on me."
In 1947, the girl's father, Joe, was in an accident and wasn't able to golf anymore for pleasure or as his occupation. He found a new job at a dairy and it was Asa, the son of his employer, to whom Milly continued to be drawn. Milly baked cookies for Asa and met him in the meadow where he'd stop the tractor for a chat.
When Cousin Bettie arrived for the summer, both sisters were profoundly affected by her visit. Twiss was especially enamored with her cousin who wanted to be called Bett. She called Twiss "the tiger" and Milly "the lamb."
Twiss struck up a correspondence with the family priest who ran off to Mexico. She's the spunky sister who didn't wear dresses or do as she was told and is a lovable character as she is very much her own person.
The descriptions of the land are a beautiful weaving throughout the story. They're usually associated with Twiss who "knew every dip and rise on their land, every anthill and every snake hole. She knew what kind of grass grew where." To Twiss, the sounds of the meadow in summer "felt holy somehow."
Milly was known as "a great beauty with emerald eyes." Hers was not a docile beauty, however; she made a sacrifice at her young age that affected the rest of her life. She and Twiss care for the lives of birds when they're older; while young, they cared for the emotional lives of the people in their lives.
Various notes are exchanged during the story, including those written by the girls who try getting their parents closer to one another. The notes endear the reader to the sisters and are among the many poignant and even heart-breaking, moments in the book.
Stories within the larger story make the book an intricately woven tale. In the end, it is the close relationship of Milly and Twiss, their love for and acceptance of one another, that thrives beyond all the surprises and turns of events.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Rebecca Rasmussen teaches creative writing and literature at Fontbonne University. Her stories have appeared in Triquarterly magazine and the Mid-American Review. She lives with her husband and daughter in St. Louis. Visit the book's website.
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