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The past is present

The Bird Sisters book cover

The Bird Sisters
Rebecca Rasmussen
Crown Publishers


When they were teenagers, Milly hoped to marry and have children, while Twiss hoped to stand on the Continental Divide and “to be the world’s most interesting spinster.” Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel, The Bird Sisters, opens at least half a century later with Milly and Twiss living together in the house where they grew up. Perhaps, as Twiss concludes, they just didn’t want those other things enough.

The chapters of The Bird Sisters alternate, for the most part, between the present and the past, with echoing transitions creating the feeling of time as a river that flows both ways. At the end of Chapter 10, the older Twiss muses on the unsatisfactory nature of language, how,

a fine sunset, for example, was more than fine. There were no words, or Twiss couldn’t find them anymore, for the way the colors made her feel.

Chapter 11 begins,

When Twiss was a girl, language was language as a sunset was a sunset…Words were vehicles that got her where she wanted to go.

Rasmussen confines the present to one day, which begins with Milly and Twiss finishing their morning tea, includes the arrival of a family with a wounded goldfinch, and ends with Milly ringing the cowbell for supper. The bird sisters, so dubbed by a reporter, have spent their lives taking care of injured birds. That goldfinch serves as a cue to the reader that we’re with the older sisters rather than the younger ones, a cue that is often necessary as the past refuses to stay neatly in its assigned chapters but instead permeates the memories of the older Twiss and Milly. Unfortunately, however, the past in these present chapters often hangs on action that does little to advance the narrative or intensify the drama.

The particular past that intrudes into the lives of the older bird sisters is the summer Twiss was fourteen; Milly, sixteen; and their ugly cousin Bett, visiting from Deadwater, eighteen. Milly and Twiss, despite their somewhat simple delineations as girly girl and tomboy, become fully alive through Rasmussen’s writing, each page a joy to read. The problem, however, arises at the end of each page, when there seems to be no reason to turn it. The Bird Sisters lacks narrative drive, with the questions it does manage to raise—why is the father living in the barn, what is wrong with Bett, will they have enough money to bring Father Rice back, will Milly get married—seeming insufficient incentive to lift the hand.

Still, the writing sparkles with details. At the end of the summer in a borrowed dress, “a handful of sizes too large for her with sunbursts of yellow lace embroidered from the hem to the neckline,” Twiss says, “Isn’t it amazing…It’s like happiness can be sewn.” Earlier in the novel, when Twiss was asked to draw happiness, she “drew a flock of all different types of birds—red, blue, gray, green—taking flight…” She said it felt like freedom. And throughout the novel are echoes of home: Bett, whose parents divorce while she visits her cousins, knows that “home wasn’t going to be home anymore.” For a childless couple, having Twiss come by for a visit “makes home feel more like home.” And for Milly, whose beau doesn’t show up at the fair, “home, even though she knew the route, seemed unreachable now.”

In the only scene to appear twice, both in Milly’s and Twiss’s point of view, Twiss, who doesn’t wear dresses, wears that borrowed dress, and Milly, who doesn’t get angry (“You could cut off her leg and she’d still ask if she could get you anything.”), shoves Twiss to the ground. Mere hours later, life—in the form of an errant father and a cousin in trouble—complicates matters and unlikely choices are made.

Looking back over a life is a privilege and “one of the few marvelous things about aging:”

Twiss could travel from here to there without having to go anywhere at all. Her memories were her suitcases, and her mind her passport…

In The Bird Sisters, a novel that begins with the present but is flooded with the past, that backward look reveals not only the young selves and youthful hopes of two characters but also the telling choices that were made when dreams bumped up against life.

Cynthia Newberry Martin is Contrary’s Review Editor.