Beverly Jensen: The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

Holy cow, this book was absolutely magnificent! Probably the best book I read this year. I will be giving it to everybody this holiday season. I had an incredibly busy week with very little time for reading, but I could not put this down.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay tells the story of Idella and Avis Hillock, born in New Brunswick in the first decade of the twentieth century. They spend their childhood living with their father, eking out a living between their rocky farm and the herring they can catch. They grow up, move down south to Maine, get married, have kids, and live their lives. Like most people, they experience tragedy, comedy, love, despair, heartbreak, and joy.

The story I just described probably sounds like a million other books. But what makes this one different is the incredible writing. Each chapter works as a stand-alone short story. And every one is a prose poem. For example, there is one where Idella has dinner with the parents of a boy she has been dating. The mother is a very difficult person and the dinner goes badly (to say the least). At the end of the meal the boy blows his temper and stomps out the back door. The story ends with this paragraph:

And there was Eddie, over by the strawberry patch, scooched down on his haunches. He, too, was looking out at the field—a soft gray figure silhouetted in the dimming light, fuzzy around the edges as though sitting in a private fog. Mist rose up from the long field grasses and sat like puffs of smoke in the lower dips and hollows. Idella slipped gratefully out of her new shoes—she wasn’t used to wearing that much heel—and stepped down onto the cool, dark grass. She walked toward Eddie, choosing to let go the screen door so it screeched and banged closed behind her. Not for the last time, she thought, as she padded toward him, smiling. Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang.

I think that is my favorite passage in the whole book. “Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang” is such a sweet way to show that she’s planning to stick with the guy, but in the context of this truly miserable dinner it’s more than just sweet. It shows you something about her character: she is stubborn and scrappy and she doesn’t mind banging a door. (Also interesting to think that a door slamming shut can indicate the beginning of something, not just a closing or ending.)

So, anyway. Each chapter is a beautiful story in itself, and some were actually published individually. One I believe was nominated for a Pushcart. And many years lapse between the events in each. At the same time, the story-chapters fit together beautifully and make a perfectly cohesive, seamless novel.

At least, I think it’s a novel. I noticed something very curious on the cover. The design includes a small yellow badge that says FICTION. Very odd. Usually if there is a question the cover will say “A novel” or something. But… fiction? Hmmm. This book really feels like a memoir. It reminded me a lot of Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (awesome book!) which is subtitled “A True-Life Novel.” It even reminded me (a little bit) of the Laura Ingalls books, say, if they had been written for adults and without the sad parts of her life glossed over. Not only that but Idella’s married name is Jensen and she has four daughters, three of whom apparently have the same names as Beverly Jensen’s sisters, the fourth of whom I believe is never mentioned by name. Is this really a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between?

Whatever it is, go read it!