Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay: Growing up in New Brunswick

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay: FictionThe Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I should have learned my lesson by now. The first (fantastic!) review I wrote about this book vanished into thin air when I hit "publish" on blogger. This oddity has happened to me often enough that I should know better and draft my posts on Notepad (like this one, which I did). Grr!!

This book drew me in because of its story about sisters and setting in New Brunswick, Canada, where my mother's ancestors lived.

Idella and Avis Hillock live on a hardscabble farm on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the ocean. The story begins with the young girls searching for mayflowers to give to their mother on Mother's day. Tragically, their mother never made it to Mother's Day, because she died soon after giving birth to their youngest sister, Emma. In addition to Idella and Avis, she left behind her husband, "Wild Bill" Hillock, a rough, hard-drinking farmer, and their son Dalton, who escapes their difficult home life by retreating to his lobster boat.

As soon as they are old enough, Idella and Avis leave Canada to move south to the U.S. The book follows their lives, loves, and losses over the next 60 to 70 years in a variety of locations, from Maine and Boston back to New Brunswick. Straitlaced, traditional Idella marries a philandering husband and has four girls. Wild Avis ends up with a series of men, none of which she really loves, and serves a few years of time in prison.

I loved the character development in this novel, as well as the beautiful descriptions of the land and environment, especially in New Brunswick. I also enjoyed reading how the small Canadian community supported each other in a crisis. The sisters, although dramatically different in personality and values, were the one constant in each other's lives. Even though their lives were difficult, they shared a few laughs, such as attending the opera or drinking cherry cider in the back of Avis' boyfriend's car.

It's easy to see that this novel was written as a series of short stories, as its one weakness was the disconnectedness of many of the chapters. Some characters lived large in certain chapters, only to then disappear during the rest of the book (such as the French-Canadian maid, Maddie).

The author, Beverly Jensen, wrote The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay while she was taking care of her children, and then she died from pancreatic cancer. Her husband, Jay Silverman (English professor at Nassau Community College), published her work posthumously. Jensen's death is especially poignant considering the fact that these characters' lives were so shaped by their mother's death.

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