A lot happens in "The Bird Sisters," Rebecca Rasmussen's debut novel about a troubled rural Wisconsin family's implosion in the 1940s. The novel jumps back and forth across the decades between the muted, melancholy twilight years of sisters Twiss and Milly and their hopeful teen years, when a series of unfortunate events shook, and shaped, their lives.
The aged Milly and Twiss are known as "the bird sisters" because people bring the practical, outdoorsy Twiss injured birds to heal or dispatch, and as she does so, gentle Milly serves them tea and kind words. They are fragile and lonesome and often stop to wince at "the facts of history," but they have each other, and that means the world to them.
The reasons for that unfold in the childhood segments. The girls' parents, who "married for love," become estranged after their golf-mad father loses his moneymaking swing in a car accident, refuses to face realities (primarily economic ones) and moves into the family's barn, apart from his proud, perpetually disappointed wife.
One summer, the girls' sickly, enigmatic Minnesota cousin Bett comes to visit, and soon their world falls apart.
There are also a number of subplots, including Milly's growing love for a shy farm boy named Asa and the defection of the family's priest after he announces that he no longer believes in a traditional God and his church's mission.
Young Twiss is brash, unconventional, tomboyish, with freckles and cropped hair. Milly, who has long blond hair, is gentle, lovely, shy, and most important to shaping her fate, self-sacrificing. Together, "they made one regular person," Twiss thinks.
A close reader will be able to predict, more or less, what happens. And that is the main problem with an otherwise arresting story -- there is so much foreshadowing that the reader is never surprised by what unfolds. It is as if an inexorable fate pushes the characters forward, and perhaps that is the book's point. But at times it makes for a weariness on the part of the reader, a sense that says, Let's just get to it, then. The book seems to have about five endings -- just when you think it's wrapped up, a new chapter begins with some fresh pondering or wrapup of a subplot.
Rasmussen has written that the story's genesis was in a real- life event -- her great-grandparents' troubled marriage and early deaths a year after her great-grandfather impregnated his wife's sister. (The book's plot is different enough from that sentence that it's not a spoiler to include it.)
The novel's greatest value lies in its examination of how a family trauma can inflict enduring damage and yet how an unexpectedly strong harbor -- in this case, the love between siblings -- can offer quiet redemption. That's a tough set of truths to tackle, and in general, Rasmussen has done it boldly and thoughtfully. It will be interesting to see this writer's gifts unfold further.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.