Saturday, April 02, 2011
THE BIRD SISTERS by Rebecca Rasmussen (2011) Crown Publishing, 287 pages
Rebecca Rasmussen's debut novel (to be launched to the wider world on April 12th) will tug at your heartstrings. Guaranteed. The tenderness demonstrated by her characters had me weeping by page three when protagonist Twiss receives an injured goldfinch from a little girl after her mother's minivan "severed one of the goldfinch's wings and crushed the other one." Here is what started my tears:
"She'd offer the goldfinch a teaspoon of millet and peanut butter and hold him up to the window so he could see the sky. Once a bird lost his ability to fly, not much else could be done in the way of mending him. Losing a wing was a little like losing a leg and the freedom of movement, of spirit, it granted you; most people could live without the former but not the latter."
THE BIRD SISTERS is a fully formed narrative. From the beginning I thought of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and how the summer that Dill came to Maycomb County, everything changed in Jem and Scout's lives. Something akin happens here when Twiss and Milly's older cousin Bett comes to stay in the summer of 1947 and changes the course of all of their lives forever. Each of the characters you will meet seems like flesh and blood relatives from a less complicated, albeit occasionally harrowing, time.
The spinsters, now in their seventies and still living together in the home in which they were raised, carry talismans with them as comfort: worn advice from their mother who repeatedly told them, "Bone china is like your heart. If it breaks, it can't be fixed," and a copy of The Curious Book of Birds, inscribed, "For Milly, Because."
Rasmussen carefully balances the heartache with moments of levity that surprise and delight, often found in comments from each of the teenaged girls who are 14, 16 and 18 or through their candid observations about the limited small-town world in which they live. Fourteen-year-old Twiss asks her 16-year-old sister Milly, for instance, "How would you like to be stuck with someone like Adam?" And, instead of waiting for Milly's response, offers up her own: "I would have eaten that apple too. Just to get away from him."
When Henry the parrot suffers a bout of insomnia before his musical debut at the town fair where he sings "Ave Maria" in Latin, his human companion Mrs. Bettle tells the girls that he "says the most appalling things after a night of no sleep." Of course, I imagine Henry swearing a blue streak and needing to go to confession to be absolved of his instinctive naughtiness. The faithless Father Rice would certainly be amused. When a pushy parishioner demands, "What if I refuse to live in a godless world?," he counsels, "Then, I'm afraid you'll have to shoot yourself, my dear. Either God doesn't exist or He's too busy to do it Himself."
Like Carol Shields, Rasmussen manages to show what is extraordinary in the ordinary lives lived by ordinary folk. There are well-placed stones along the narrative path that gesture towards what is to come: a fortune teller's advice; an almost drowning; the heady promise of first love; the agony of betrayal; an unexpected proposal; forged letters; a ride in an airplane; bars of lavender soap shaped like seashells; a tractor-shaped buttercream cake; purple prairie happiness tonic; secrets kept and told; a book shaped like forgiveness. With each deft reveal, the story will have you in its luminous thrall.
And, there is wisdom woven through. Teenaged Twiss realizes, "Maybe it was easier to tell your life to someone you didn't know than to tell it to someone you did." At the same time, from her perch atop the Ferris wheel at the county fair, her older sister Milly sees "that everything below her...was too good to be true and, like the Ferris wheel, would eventually have to come down." Most importantly they both know, and this knowledge binds them just as much as their blood, that "You can't always explain why you love the people you love." You can't.
In "Anthem" Leonard Cohen wrote, "there is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." Make room for the light in THE BIRD SISTERS. It will split you open and fill you up. It is a blindingly stunning debut.