Frankly, The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay is going to irritate a lot of readers. It’s a folksy tale of folks from the folksy countryside, who charm with their folksy wit and wisdom. There’s stuff here that’s tooth-pullingly grating. And yet The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay is about as well-executed as this kind of book could ever be. There’s a reason it’s picked up advance buzz from authors as diverse as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. Its collection of short stories about two sisters who grow into womanhood without their mother eventually builds a detailed, perfectly observed world, and author Beverly Jensen is content to just sit back, set her characters in motion, and watch.
Jensen wrote the stories while working a job and being a wife and mother over the course of nearly two decades, before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2003. Since then, her husband and children have been trying to get her stories noticed any way they could, picking up a handful of literary champions along the way. Now, in this edition, all of Jensen’s stories—including many previously unpublished ones—are available in the same place. The best is still the widely acclaimed “Wake” (winner of several short-story prizes a few years back), but nearly every one of these little tales works.
Jensen’s strength is in starting in one place, then going to another that readers wouldn’t necessarily expect. Her stories aren’t exactly unpredictable—everything that happens will be on any savvy reader’s list of possibilities—but they are sweetly detailed and wise about the ways people support each other or let each other down. And as delicately observed as her plotting is, Jensen’s characters are even better.
What’s impressive is just how coolly Jensen is able to detail a large assortment of characters mainly through the viewpoints of the two titular sisters, practical Idella and flighty Avis. (Two stories do step outside their heads, and into the points of view of Idella’s daughter and husband.) Born in the early 1900s in extreme rural Canada, young Idella and Avis see their family slowly contract, and they break for the States as soon as they can. Along the way, they encounter such fascinatingly sketched portraits as Maddie, a French-Canadian girl on the run from something that clearly terrifies her; Jessie, Idella’s eventual mother-in-law, who derives pleasure only from complaining; and father Bill, a slightly bewildering figure who has no idea what to do with children he clearly loves and just as clearly doesn’t understand. All Jensen’s characters are fascinating in their own right, capable of carrying stories on their own.
Occasionally, The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay threatens to drown in folksiness, but the quiet miracle of the book is that Jensen steers clear of these moments so quickly, as if avoiding reefs that might tear her tenderly constructed fictions apart. Short stories about rural folks who know more than their city-slicker cousins are a dime a dozen; Jensen understands that they work best when everyone is fumbling toward answers they’re barely able to grasp in the first place.