An engrossing achievement in family narrative, Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters follows three generations of women, illuminating the way decisions—and secrets—can reverberate through decades, fundamentally shaping others’ lives in ways they may never fully understand. What emerges is a multigenerational family portrait that elegantly reveals its individual figures, and allows them to reveal one another, while making deft leaps over broad sweeps of time and place.
The story opens in 1927 in the tiny town of Juniper, Kentucky, where orphaned sisters Mabel and Bertie Fischer are left in the hands of their stepfather, a cruel, damaged war veteran who, unbeknownst to Bertie, has sexually abused Mabel. The sisters are each other’s dearest allies—until Mabel, the eldest, hatches a plot for escape on the day of Bertie’s eighth-grade graduation. She flees to Chicago with Bertie’s beau, Wallace, intending for Bertie to follow soon after. But the plan goes awry, ultimately separating the sisters forever.
In Chicago, Mabel finds work as a photographer’s assistant, which ushers her into a long, rich career as a photojournalist. The job also puts her in the path of a young girl, Daisy, whom she instantly suspects of having a similarly troubled past. The two never explicitly discuss their experiences but are united by a mutual understanding all the same, and Mabel steals Daisy away to start a new life in Indianapolis, with Daisy quick to embrace Mabel as a mother, her “Mama-bel.” Mabel, desperate to reunite with her sister, dispatches letter after to letter to Bertie; but Bertie, believing that her sister has betrayed her, refuses to open them. She marries and settles in Indiana, hardened both by heartbreak and hardscrabble conditions during the Depression.
At times, this initial series of events stretches the novel’s plausibility—in particular, it’s too easy to question Mabel’s decision to flee Juniper without Bertie, and Bertie’s refusal to read even a single letter sent by Mabel. But if Jensen’s hand can be felt at times in the orchestration of her narrative, it is nevertheless compelling, and her intimate explorations of her characters’ emotional depths are deeply satisfying.
In chapters written from alternating points of view, the novel hopscotches over decades, with Bertie’s daughters Alma and Rainey adding their voices to the narrative chorus, followed by Rainey’s daughters, Lynn and Grace. All six are vividly drawn, and each entirely distinct from the other. From the way young Rainey tidies up spots on a grill top that her junior coworker has missed, to Alma’s colored-pencil sketches of a plate of appetizers—fastidious preparation for entertaining her husband’s colleagues—Jensen’s characterization is consistently loving, exacting, carefully considered.
And it is always clear, often painfully so, how closely the women are connected, how the choices they make are guided by their mothers’ and grandmothers’ choices before them. Every chapter contributes threads to this web, teasing out a pattern of cause and effect that is mostly invisible to the characters, though fascinating for readers to observe. Each woman in the family makes pivotal choices about what she will and won’t reveal, or fully explain, to her loved ones.
Take Rainey, whose daughters are unaware that, as a teenager, she had taken her destiny into her own hands and pursued a professional life, an option not only unavailable but unthinkable to her own mother, who frowned upon Rainey’s determined move. To raise money for accounting school, she secures a job at a newly opened burger joint—a first of its kind—where she thrills to a sense of responsibility and pride in accomplishment. Her superiors peg her for work in the restaurant’s corporate offices, and Rainey can “finally see, really see, what her life might be,” until pregnancy puts an end to those plans. Years later, Rainey, embittered by what she sees as a life of mistakes, “a great wobbly stack of them,” ends up forever encumbered, able only to make “allusions to dreams she’d once had without ever saying what they were.” And Rainey herself is blind to the ways in which Bertie, too, has made choices that are to blame for her own dissatisfaction. “They had all been raised up on secrets—things never expressed but linked through time to all the other members,” Jensen writes.
The paths these women successfully pursue are also guided by—or are echoes of—events in the past of which they are mostly or entirely unaware. This pattern reaches its symbolic apotheosis in Grace, who has never known her father. She falls in love with a troubled Vietnam veteran, a man who can’t let her fully know him. “Millions of years of human life,” she reflects, “and still there was no more arduous battle than crossing the border into someone else’s heart. Or to stand aside and wave him across your own.” Grace, meanwhile, knows nothing of her Grandma Bertie’s stepfather, also wounded fundamentally by his experiences at war. Nor does she know of her great-aunt Mabel, who achieves a measure of fame for her portraits of soldiers headed to Vietnam.
In The Sisters, war is a significant backdrop, one of several broad patterns of social change that shape these characters’ lives in tandem with family history. But the psychic wounds of war are also a metaphor for families broken by misunderstandings and secrets, as Mabel seems to be thinking when she gazes upon Life magazine images of Vietnam: “Some damage could never be undone. One could only try to stand, take another’s arm, and stagger on.”
Nancy Jensen will discuss The Sisters at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books on October 14 at 2 p.m. in Legislative Plaza, Room 31. All festival events are free and open to the public.