The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen (New York: Viking, 2010).
Summary: "In 1916, Idella and Avis Hillock live on the edge of a chilly bluff in New Brunswick -- a hardscrabble world of potato farms and lobster traps, rough men, hard work, and baffling beauty. From 'Gone,' the heartbreaking account of the crisis that changed their lives forever, through 'Wake,' a darkly comic saga of funeral plans gone awry, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay chronicles their trials, adventures, loves, and losses over seven decades. The lively supporting cast includes the unforgettable 'Wild Bill' Hillock; Idella's philandering husband Eddie; Avis's string of ne'er-do-well men; and a collection of locals whom Idella entertains at her small Maine General Store. Beverly Jensen has fashioned a richly textured and vivid record of a bygone era, a classic American tale of resilience and the strength of family ties."
Opening Line: "They had strung their shoes by the laces from a solitary elm before entering the woods edging the back field."
My Take: A nice, old-fashioned, make-you-feel-good story that I enjoyed much more than I'd expected. The book is essentially a collection of vignettes, most of which would stand quite well on their own as independent short stories. While I'm not usually a short-story fan, and tend to prefer a bit more plot in my novels, Jensen's approach works here -- probably because it's so well-suited to her understated but complex character sketches.
"Gone," the first chapter, was absolutely devastating. Set at the Hillocks' isolated home on the eve of World War I, it opens with eight-year-old Idella and little sister Avis scouring a nearby wood for mayflowers, secretly planning to pick a nosegay for their very pregnant mother for Mayday. However, that very night, Mom's water breaks. With the aid of her neighbors and a country doctor, she gives birth at home to another daughter, disappointing husband Bill, who'd hoped for a second son. The delivery is quick and smooth, but the following day, she inexplicably begins to hemorrhage. Within hours, she is dead. Gradually, Idella, who's been quietly sitting outside her parents' bedroom watching the commotion, comes to understand that there's been a grave mistake: the pills the doctor gave her mother to promote uterine cramping were the wrong kind. Together with the neighbor ladies, she keeps this information secret from her father, knowing it can only do more harm than good.
Subsequent chapters provide a window into what it's like for Idella and Avis to grow up motherless and poor in this stark landscape, with a stoic and heartbroken father. Baby Emma is sent off to be raised by an aunt and uncle, and teenaged brother Dalton mostly fends for himself while he's not out helping Dad with the lobstering, leaving the two middle sisters to torment a series of short-term French-Canadian housekeepers/ nannies. Then comes Maddie, a large, homely refugee from the lobster cannery who seems ... different, somehow. Anne of Green Gables she ain't, but slowly, Avis and then the rest of the Hillocks become fond of her. Unfortunately, though, all good things must end (though not, in this case, for the reason you'd expect), and ultimately, Maddie is packed off to another job, and Idella and Avis sent to live with relatives in Maine. Surprisingly, they thrive here, and Idella proves to be an outstanding student when given the chance. But this is not to be her lot; on the heels of her eighth grade graduation, Bill is injured in a hunting accident, and summons his girls home to keep house and care for him.
In these conditions, both girls grow up quickly. Idella becomes a skilled but resentful housekeeper, while the flashier and wilder Avis is her father's pet. Years later, the 19-year-old Idella decides she's had enough, catches a ride on the mail truck, and returns to Maine, where she takes a job as a live-in housekeeper, and ultimately falls in love with and marries the charming if not always faithful Eddie Jensen. Avis's path is both more exciting and more difficult; left alone with her father and the increasingly-remote Dalton, she grows closer to Bill in ways that spark ugly rumors among the neighbors. Eventually, she, too, leaves, becomes a hairdresser, and runs through a string of lively but unreliable beaux -- one of whom manages to land her in jail.
We get a much clearer picture of Idella's adult life than we do of Avis's: her struggles with Jessie, Eddie's awful mother; the tireless but satisfying process of building and maintaining her store; her recognition of Eddie's fling with Iris; an ordinary but memorable drive in the country with daughter Barbara and Avis. Avis, by contrast, offers only one chapter, in which she briefly sketches her views on men and hints at her experience in jail (which Idella's letters always called "the hotel.") It didn't escape my notice that one of Idella and Ed's four daughters is named Beverly Jensen, just like the author -- making me wonder if the book was inspired at least in part by what she knew of her mother's or grandmother's life.
One of the things I most appreciated about this book was Jensen's refusal to reduce her characters to stereotypes. Bill drinks heavily and demands too much of his young daughters, yes -- but he also tries, in his fashion, to be a loving father, and is clearly if undramatically shattered by the death of his beloved wife. Eddie is unfaithful to Idella, but is portrayed as more PITA than monster; the mix of drive-each-other-crazy tics and fond, sweet memories the couple share will ring true for anyone who's been married a while. The final chapters, in which we attend Bill's baroque-meets-maritime wake and then peek at the last days of Idella, Eddie, and Avis's lives, provide a fitting, satisfying conclusion to the collection. A simple, gentle, and memorable book, well worth your time.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.