Monday, August 16, 2010

Triumph and Tragedy

"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?


  1. Gale - That sounds like a wonderful book! The most recent book I felt that way about was The Book Thief. Even though there were times it was gut wrenching and sad, the ultimate triumph of hope is what I was left with and whenever I talk about the book, I can't say enough. The characters are so well drawn, I think I did in fact slow down my reading so I could savor spending time with them.

  2. Gale,

    Have you read THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett? I read it to get me in the frame of mind of the 1960s for my MG project, but I did just what you said. I put the last chapter off. I didn't want it to end. I'm adding your recommendation to my list. Thanks!

    Linda A.

  3. I'm going to agree with Robin. THE BOOK THIEF is my all time favorite book. Emotionally raw, tender, joyful and tearful all at the same time. I recently re-read it for the 3rd or 4th time this year. Every time I read it I learn something else. But I'm going to add a second book, Jandy Nelson's THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE is a poignant story of grief and life after loss, beautifully crafted on a sentence level right on up to the structure of the novel, plot, and characters. I was sad when I closed the book.

  4. Robin - I'm going to take The Book Thief on vacation next week. I want to read it again.

    Linda - I have The Help on my to-read list. Friends who lived in the South during that time have recommended it to me.

    Meg - I'll have to hunt down The Sky is Everywhere. If you think so highly of it, I'm sure it's excellent!

  5. I believe I shelved Unwind by Neal Shusterman for a while, because I wanted to postpone finishing it. It was that good.

  6. Yup . . . I agree JL, that was a good one.

  7. The Book Thief, The Help, Unwind -- loved them all. The Book Thief is on my reread list (as opposed to the much longer first read list) for this year. I wonder if I will slow down the ending on the second read?

    I'm going to add Going Bovine to my hate to see it end list. I laughed, I cried, I sometimes got annoyed. But I did pause before reading the last few chapters. It was a heck of a ride.