"Every now and then - maybe two or three times in a decade - a book comes along that's so good you want to buttonhole strangers on the street, show it to them, and say: 'Read this! It will fill you up and make you glad you're alive!'" Stephen King.
" . . . a good half-dozen of the richest fictional characters I've encountered anywhere . . ." Richard Russo.
Wow! What praise! What a triumph for the author! So where's the tragedy?
Beverly Jensen, the author of THE SISTERS FROM HARDSCRABBLE BAY, the book eliciting such praise, died at forty-nine of pancreatic cancer in 2003. She never saw any of her work in print.
Beverly's experience as a actress helped her produce crisply defined characters on the page. "She liked to say that if a character carried a purse but never opened it, the actress still needed to know everything inside." (A familiar idea, writers?)
A collection of stories covering seventy years, the novel features Idella and Avis Hillock, who escape their stark childhood on a barren, wind-swept Canadian homestead. As Idella, dutiful and cautious, and Avis, combative and wild, seek economic security and affection, their lives diverge.
Idella marries the first man who courts her and in spite of Eddie's affairs, sticks with him. Avis, the prettier sister, attracts a series of flashy lovers and grifters and lives "big and loud" before marrying Dwight, a nonentity. Idella, quieter and thoughtful, plays peacemaker among her dysfunctional in-laws, and when threatened with a hold-up, befriends the armed and desperate boy.
Scenes between the sisters spotlight their differences, but they're linked forever by haunting childhood memories of their mother's early death and their father's drunken unhappiness. A brother, Dalton, is hopelessly scarred by his time at home after the girls leave.
Hilarious - Idella and Avis at the opera, or getting drunk on cherry cider. Heartbreak - Idella declaring she'll no longer iron the shirts Eddie's mistress gives him, or Avis serving jail time. And then there's the densely emotional story that begins with, "Good God Almighty. We've lost the damned body." Avis and Dalton are transporting their father's body by train back to Canada, where Idella waits with relatives and neighbors - held captive in the church by an ice storm.
Okay, okay, I know, this blog's about kidlit, but have you ever postponed reading the end of a book because it's so beautifully crafted you wanted to laugh and cry with the incandescent characters a little longer? I did with this one.
Has this happened to you lately? Which book was it?