Friday, February 17, 2012

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen

Beverly Jensen wrote this novel in the 1990s, but died of cancer before she could publish it. In fact it’s not entirely clear whether she meant for it to be published, though she had been working with a writing group and taking writing classes. Jensen’s husband (who oversaw the eventual publication) has given us a gift—this is a wonderful book, reminiscent of Alice Munro and Jane Urquhart in its subject matter and pace, and with its sharp observations about the lives of working class rural women.

 Avis and Idella Hillock are scrappy girls who endure the early death of their mother and a turbulent upbringing by their alcoholic father on a remote farm in New Brunswick, Canada. Each girl escapes that brutal environment using whatever tools she can muster, and their lives span much of the 20th century. We see them over the course of more than 70 years as they grow up, work, love, marry, divorce, have children, and eventually pass away. Their stories are at times heartbreaking, funny, inspiring, and familiar. Both women inhabit the page completely; I can hear their voices and will remember them for a long time.

Some reviewers have described this book as a collection of short stories instead of a novel. I can see why some might say that. The chapters (stories) are all self-contained, and are often separated by many years in time. Also, some are more fully realized than others. The first chapter, where Avis and Idella are approximately 5 and 8 years old, and witness their mother’s death in childbirth, is extremely powerful, while other chapters are shorter and read more like sketches. Even those, however, are absorbing and well written, but they do serve as sad reminders that Jensen might not have been finished writing about these remarkable women.

(Book 6, 2012)


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