The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen is an excellent book. My only regret for this book is that Ms. Jensen has passed away and cannot write any more books, nor answer questions about this one.
My pressing question for Ms. Jensen is whether or not she based the characters on her own family and is answered by Wikipedia. The characters are so finely detailed and realistic that I really had no doubt, especially after realizing that 4 sisters in the book, the children of the main character, Idella, have names that match those of Ms. Jensen and her sisters.
Taking each story on its own, there is nothing much marvelous about it. But when you take the set of stories as a whole, watching the characters develop and grow and find out more about them and their lives, this book is nothing short of miraculous.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead.
The book opens in 1916 with the death of the sisters’, Idella and Avis, mother in childbirth. Actually, she dies after being given pills left by the doctor for afterbirth pains. When he arrives from town when she begins bleeding, he throws the pills in the stove. The women in attendance assume that he prescribed the wrong pills, but say nothing for fear her husband would kill the doctor. I wonder if he prescribed what he meant to prescribe, but it didn’t act either as it was supposed to or as advertised.
The death of their mother changes the sisters’ lives profoundly. Not so much in opportunities gained or lost, but in a permanent sense of loss, a dislocation in the world that reflects itself in their somewhat chaotic lives that follow.
Idella fares the best, perhaps because she was the oldest and had memories of her mother to sustain her. She marries in her twenties, to a steady provider, with whom she has four daughters. Eddie’s family may be a little crazy, he has his affairs through the years, but he is always there for Idella at the end of the day.
Avis has a much more complicated life, beginning with her very close relationship with her father, although she insists there was nothing wrong. She can never find a good, steady man, and goes through a series of terrible boyfriends, the worst of whom were the one who shot himself in front of her because she threatened to leave him, and the one who set her up as a prostitute and robbed her customers, until they were caught by the police and sent to jail. She spent two years there.
The men in the book are generally alcoholics and unreliable at best, dangerous and violent at worst. There are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between. Idella says,
Growing up, they just had wildflowers. … They were such wild things, they weren’t meant to be brought indoors.
That’s what the men were like, too. crude men who were not brought up right. Not the farmers who lived there and had families and such. They were nice enough men. It was the strays Dad hired, who showed up sudden and left that way. They didn’t even belong in a house. (pp 142-3)
But somehow, despite and because of these unreliable men (and it turns out the scary men aren’t just the strays), the women survive and grow stronger, able and ready to take on the world and whatever it gives them.
Five out of five stars.