Family secrets reverberate for generations in one of the "Best Novels of 2011" (Kirkus Reviews)
Growing up without a mother in hardscrabble Kentucky in the 1920s, Bertie Fischer and her older sister, Mabel, have only each other―with perhaps a sweetheart for Bertie waiting in the wings. But on the day that Bertie graduates from eighth grade, good intentions go terribly wrong, setting off a chain of misunderstandings that will change the lives of the next three generations.
What happens when nothing turns out as you planned? From the Depression through the second world war and Vietnam, and smaller events both tragic and joyful, Bertie and Mabel forge unexpected identities that are shaped by a past that no one ever talks about. Gorgeously written, with extraordinary insight and emotional truth, Nancy Jensen's brilliant first novel, The Sisters, illuminates the far-reaching power of family and family secrets.
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NANCY JENSEN is an award-winning graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College whose short stories and essays have been published in such literary journals as Northwest Review, Other Voices, and The Louisville Review. She teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY. A national bestseller and a #1 Indie Next Pick in hardcover, The Sisters is her debut novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
It was a lovely dress, soft and pink as a cloud at dawn. Bertie admired the way the chiffon draped from her neck in long, light, curving folds, seeming to narrow her square shoulders, and it pleased her to imagine how the skirt would swish around her calves when she walked to the stage to get her eighth-grade diploma, but she was most fond of the two buttons, small silver roses, that fastened the sleeve bands just below each elbow. Two months Mabel had worked for the dress, going into Kendall’s an hour early every day, fixing it with Mrs. Kendall so, come commencement week, Bertie could choose any one she wanted. Bertie twirled before the mirror, then lifted her hair to see how it would look pinned up, and, yes, suddenly she was taller, almost elegant. She couldn’t remember feeling pretty before. In this dress, she did, and it was wonderful. She even felt a little sorry for Mabel. Her sister had always been beautiful—slim and doll-like, with big eyes and glistening bobbed hair, Juniper’s Clara Bow—so Mabel couldn’t appreciate the wonder of suddenly feeling transformed, caterpillar to butterfly.
Bertie swooshed out her arms, letting her hair fall again down her back. Stooping to pull open the bottom drawer of the dresser, she reached into the far back corner for Mabel’s photograph—the one made specially for the stereopticon, with two of the same view, printed side by side.
There was Mabel, sitting on a swing, a painted garden behind her—a pair of Mabel’s, as if she were her own twin—looking like an exquisite, unhappy bride in a lacy white dress, her dark hair, still long then, longer and fuller than Bertie’s had ever been, spilling round her shoulders.
Bertie slid her fingertips across her own hair—not heavy, but fine and smooth. Very soft. Sometimes, just before he kissed her cheek, Wallace stroked her hair like this. He’d never told her if he thought it was pretty—but he must think so. Why else would he have made her a Christmas present of the pale green ribbon she’d pointed out to him in the window at Kendall’s?
She’d never worn it, not once. It stung her suddenly to realize this must have hurt Wallace, made him think she didn’t appreciate him. No one but the two of them knew about the gift—not even Mabel. Bertie had brought it home and hidden it, taking it out to hold against her cheek only when she was alone in the house—too afraid of her stepfather’s angry questions, demanding to know how she had come by it.
Well, she would wear it. This Saturday, her graduation day. She would wear Wallace’s ribbon and not care what anyone said. Such a pretty green to go with her dress, pretty as the spring-fresh stem of a rosebud. She would wear it and Wallace would know that she loved him, and then maybe, just maybe, in another year, after Wallace had finished high school, they could talk to his folks about getting married. Even if the Hansford’s said they had to wait awhile longer, until Bertie was sixteen or seventeen, she could leave school and get a job, and with her and Wallace both working and saving up, they could get a place of their own straight off.
Mabel would be upset to know Bertie was thinking this way. Lately, Mabel had talked as hopefully about her finishing high school as Mama once had—all through that sad winter after the doctor, fearing for the baby, had put Mama to bed. Every afternoon when nine-year-old Bertie got in from school, she hurried into Mama’s room, not pausing long enough even to take off her damp coat. She would lean in, kiss Mama with her wind-frozen lips, then turn to hug Mabel, who would take the coat to the kitchen to dry. While her sister started supper, Bertie sat in the bed beside her mother.
“When the baby comes,” Bertie said, “I’ll stay home to help.”
“You’ll still be in school.” Mama pulled her close. “Don’t you mind what your step daddy says. We’ll work it out. Mabel’s here now, and I’ll have both my girls to help me through the summer.” Mama’s voice was tired, tinged around the edges with uncertainty, but firm at the center. “Come the autumn, I want the two of you back in school where you belong.”
When Mama talked, Bertie believed her, but then at supper, in between mouthfuls of stew, their stepfather, Jim Butcher, not looking straight at either of them, would tell the girls what was on his mind. “You’ve had enough school,” he said to Mabel. “Reckon even too much.” He stabbed his fork toward Bertie before filling it again. “Even she’s had more than I had, and I had more than my daddy. You know how to read, write, do all the sums you’re liable to need. That’s plenty enough.”
“But when Mama’s stronger—” Mabel began.
“Then there’ll be another one along.”
At one time or another, it seemed like everybody in Juniper had heard Jim Butcher tell his story— always when he was drinking—about how, when he’d made it across the field of wheat and lay alone in a thicket in Belleau Wood—lay gasping, covered in the mixed muck of rotting leaves, pine needles, blood and flesh—God had spoken to him and promised him three sons.
But Jim Butcher’s only son had died before he could take even one breath. Two days the baby had battled to be born, and when he gave up, he took Mama with him. That—losing Mama—had been the worst thing possible, and yet Bertie couldn’t help feeling that for Mama it might have been best, dying before three, four, five years of new babies could make her older and ever more tired, make her worry more about the burden she was leaving on her girls.
Only because of Mabel, who did everything Butcher wanted—tending the house and working a job, too—had Bertie been able to go back to school. Her sister had just stepped into Mama’s shoes, seeing to all the cooking, the washing, and the dreaming for Bertie’s future. How could she tell Mabel that going on to high school didn’t matter to her? She wasn’t quick like her sister was—Mabel loved everything about books and learning— but Bertie struggled mightily whenever she had to read something. All she really wanted was to make a life with Wallace, to stand by him, and raise his children, and smile on him until death.
Bertie reached again into the open drawer until her hand found the fold of tissue paper protecting Wallace’s ribbon. Mabel would be in the kitchen now getting breakfast, and Jim Butcher would be sitting on the chair beside the bed that used to be Mama’s bed, pulling on his work boots, probably figuring up some new way he could make Bertie feel small, some reason to call her stupid and clumsy, like the way he did when he saw her slosh a little milk out of the pail after stumbling in a rut outside the barn.
But Bertie didn’t care. She stood before the mirror, drawing the ribbon out to its full length. It was beautiful against the dress. She might wear the ribbon as a band, leaving her hair loose as a waterfall down her back. Or she might gather the hair at her neck to show off the ribbon in a shimmery bow. What mattered was that, however she wore the ribbon, Wallace would see, and then—at the party after the commencement service, since no dancing would be allowed in the church hall—then Wallace would keep his promise to her by dancing her outside, and he would glide her in circles across the grass, and, flushed and dizzy, they would stop and he would look right at her, touch the ribbon, and tell her she was beautiful.
She picked up Mabel’s portrait again, turning it to face the mirror, just to see how she measured against her sister. But no—she would not look. She was done comparing herself with Mabel. And she was done trying to work out why Mabel hated this picture of herself, why she’d cut off her hair the night after it had been taken, why she had wanted to burn the card the very day Jim Butcher had brought it back from that Louisville photographer.
Right now, this moment, Bertie was determined to be happy. She had made it through Saturday and Sunday, and now it was Monday again and she had only to make it through the school day until she would see Wallace, waiting for her on the stoop like he always did, ready to hold her hand on their slow walk away from school, through town, and to the corner, where he would kiss her cheek before leaving her to turn for home.
“Alberta!” Butcher’s growl flung out ahead of his familiar heavy step.
She dropped the ribbon into the open drawer and pushed it closed, waiting to answer her stepfather until he appeared in the doorway. “Sir?’
He pulled back a little when he saw her, and stared. Raking his eyes up and down her body, up and down, like he didn’t know her. For a moment, Bertie stopped breathing and reached out a hand to steady herself on the dresser. She’d been caught trying on the dress when she ought to have been checking the water for the cow or pulling any little weeds that might have come up around the tomato sets during the night. He might be angry enough to tell her she couldn’t go to graduation. He might even tell her she couldn’t go to school today to sit for her final examinations, and if she didn’t take them, the school might fail her and she’d be forever without her eighth-grade diploma. Terrified as she was of what Butcher might say, she felt a flash of anger at herself for not having thought through the possibilities. She should have left the dress alone until evening.
Butcher looked past her and out the window at the empty clotheslines. Bertie couldn’t remember a time when he’d broken a hard stare at her, and the change made her more nervous.
“You finish all your chores?” He was looking toward her again, but somehow not quite at her.
“Almost, sir,” she said, struggling to relax her throat enough to get a breath. “I’m going now, just as soon as I change my dress. I had to make sure it fit.”
Still he stood in the doorway, watching her. Did he expect her to take it off then and there?
Bertie took a step toward the door. “I’ll be right out, sir. Soon as I change.”
“How long’s that program Saturday?”
She didn’t dare go any closer. He might see her trembling. “The ceremony’s at three,” she said. “At the church. There’s a light supper after. And after that . . .” How could such a cold stare burn a hole in her? She should just give up the party, not even mention it, come right home after she got her diploma. No hair ribbon. No dance with Wallace on the lawn. But Wallace would understand, wouldn’t he? She was almost sure he would.
“After that,” Bertie began again, but suddenly Mabel appeared behind Butcher.
“Daddy,” she said, touching his arm lightly, “your breakfast’s ready. Will chicken be all right for supper?”
Daddy, Bertie thought. She loved her sister but despised her for calling him that.
Butcher turned his head slightly toward Mabel, then looked down at his arm, where her fingers still rested. Without looking up, he spoke in Bertie’s direction: “Saturday, you be in by eight-thirty. Not a minute later.”
He walked off to the kitchen, Mabel calling after him, “I’ll be right there, Daddy.”
With a quick look behind her, Mabel slipped inside the bedroom and closed the door. “Let me help you with the back buttons.”
Bertie turned toward the mirror. “Why do you call him that?”
Instead of answering, Mabel took the brush from the dresser and drew it through Bertie’s hair in long, firm strokes. “It fits just right,” Mabel said. “The dress. Like it was made for you.” She smiled over Bertie’s shoulder at their paired reflections. “Just look how beautiful you are.”
Bertie closed her eyes, enjoying the way her scalp tingled with every stroke of the brush. After Mama died, it was the way Mabel—fourteen then, the same age Bertie was now—had stilled Bertie’s sobbing. That, and spending hours with her on their shared bed, looking at pictures in the
stereopticon, just like they’d done with Mama, long before Jim Butcher spent a few weeks of rough charm on her, drawing her out of her widow’s loneliness, persuading her that, without a man, she’d surely lose the little patch of land left to her, along with the only security she had for her girls.
In the months after Mama’s passing, they’d hear Butcher round the back of the house, throwing rocks or dried-up corncobs, sticks of kindling or empty bottles—whatever he could find—at the side of the barn, raging at the sky, calling God a filthy bastard for breaking his promise. Sometimes,
to cover up the sound, Mabel would read out loud to Bertie, or they’d sing songs Mama had liked, but always, before long, they’d get out the photo cards Mama had collected since she was a girl, and Mabel would fit them, one at a time, into the clamps on the stereopticon.
Bertie’s favorite was “The Mother’s Tender Kiss,” from a set Mama had been given a year or two before she married their father. Dated 1905, it showed a wedding party against what seemed a wall of huge blossoms, even a ceiling, like a cave of lilies. Everyone in the photo—the women in their layers of lace and the men in their slim black suits—looked toward the bride, almost obscured by her mother, who leaned in for a final kiss before her daughter became a wife. When Bertie was very small, she thought the picture was of her parents’ wedding, and even though she knew now it wasn’t true, in her mind, that’s just how it had been: a day of flowers, of lovely women and handsome men, all happy and loving each other.
“Mabel,” Bertie said now, placing her hand over the brush and taking it from her sister. “What’ll I do when you get married?”
“Who says I’m getting married?”
“It’s bound to happen. Boys like you.”
With her quick and gentle hands, Mabel separated Bertie’s hair into three sections and started braiding it. “That’s not for me,” she said. “So don’t you worry about it.”
“Do you still think about Freddy?”
All last year, Bertie had been terrified that Mabel would leave her to marry Freddy Porter. It seemed then that everywhere she went people had something to say about how Mabel Fischer ought to snap up her chance before it got away from her. Freddy had an uncle who owned a furniture store in Louisville, and it was said he was planning to get Freddy started in the business. Of course the older girls were jealous—the girls that used to be Mabel’s friends before she had to leave school—saying the only reason Freddy liked her at all was for her looks, but Bertie knew that wasn’t true. Maybe she hadn’t seen it then, but now, when she remembered, she could see that Freddy had looked at Mabel the way Wallace sometimes looked at her. Suddenly, now that it seemed possible she might be the one to get married, the one to leave her sister alone with a hateful man, Bertie was ashamed that she hadn’t really been sorry—sorry in her heart—when Butcher ran Freddy off. The idea of being left behind with her stepfather had been so terrible that she had refused even to ask herself if Mabel’s heart might be broken.
“Did you like him very much?” Bertie asked. “Freddy?”
Mabel finished the braid and held the end secure in her hand. “I did,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter now. Should I pin this up, or would you like me to tie it?”
“I have something.” Carefully, so as not to pull the braid from Mabel’s hand, Bertie bent to open the bottom drawer again. The unfurled ribbon was in easy reach. “Will this work?”
“It’s more the length for braiding in,” Mabel said, “but I can fix it some way.”
“No, just pin it,” Bertie said, stroking the ribbon. “I want to save this for something special.” She was surprised, when she looked at Mabel’s reflection, to see her sister smiling at her.
“That’s the one ...
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