Monday, September 26, 2011

The Sisters From Hardscrabble Bay by Beverly Jensen

Good morning, I want to talk to you this morning about a wonderful little collection of stories by a woman who died years before they were published. Thanks to the perseverance of her husband and the endorsement of a number of well-known writers, the stories were finally published in 2010 under the title, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay.

Beverly Jensen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2002 and died in 2003. She told her husband, Jay Silverman, that she felt she had been given writing talents but had not used them. In fact, over a period of sixteen years, between her part time office job and the raising of her two daughters, she had written a number of stories about her mother, Idella, and her aunt Avis. She had written them for herself, but after her diagnosis, she made copies for her two teenaged children and her three sisters.

With the help of Elizabeth Strout, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo and finally Stephen King, Jay Silverman managed to get the stories published. This little book is as much a tribute to his love and dedication as it is a celebration of Jensen’s story-telling talents.

The stories begin in 1916, when Idella is eight and Avis almost six. The setting is New Brunswick, Canada on a tiny farm on impossibly rocky soil near the sea. Their father had built it with help from his brother. “He put it on the high cliff overlooking the bay that pounded and raged beneath them. Mother had wanted it there…All the houses were slanted and gray and sparse-looking, sticking up out of the flat land like rotten teeth.”

The two girls share the little house and farm with their parents and one older brother, Dalton, their father insisting that he literally has to push the potatoes up out of the ground, and that the rocks multiply over night no matter how much time he spends clearing them. Already a hardscrabble life, when their mother dies after giving birth to yet another child, the two little girls are left to cook and clean for their father and older brother, the new baby sent off to live with relatives.

The two older girls get some respite from the almost impossibly hard life on the farm when they are eventually sent to live on another relative’s New England farm, a time during which they are able to attend school. But when they are still only eleven and thirteen, a hunting accident leaves their father bedridden for many months, and the girls have to return to New Brunswick.
Home. Back to the house and barn on top of the cliff overlooking the Bay Chaleur. What few trees there were about the house were all leaned over and bent from the cold, constant pressures of the winds that blew off the water. That’s how the people got, Idella thought, from living up there their whole lives—bent over and gnarled and hard, rooted in one place. The wind worked on people the same as it did on trees. It howled and bit, especially in winter, and scraped away at you. There was nothing to do but buckle over and try to get where you were going, which was never very far—to the barn or the field or the buggy to New Bandon, two miles down the road.
In spite of the hard lives, the light and laughter that shine through these stories as the two sisters travel back and forth between Canada and New England is enchanting. Tough girls who have learned from their own father and the men they grow up around just how mean and dangerous men can be, they nevertheless manage to carve out lives for themselves and to tame the men whom they allow to join them on their journeys.

I can only imagine how many times Beverly Jensen listened to her mother, Idella, telling stories about her beautiful sister Avis and the wild times they had. Each retelling planting some new seed in her daughter’s mind, providing some delicious new detail about the lives of these sisters welded together by struggle, but also by daring and a thirst for more life, for a different life.

While the men are hard working, hard drinking, and difficult to live with, the portraits   painted by Jensen and derived from her mother’s stories are also forgiving and compassionate. The girls’ father sends them off to New England not because he wants to be free of them, but because he realizes that life without their mother is impossibly hard; the love he shows for his lost wife is luminescent. And he calls them back home only because he is bedridden and cannot keep the house and farm going without them. He sees the fear he inspires in his own daughters, but simply cannot be other than he is.
These days he knew that the sound of his boots was a different thing. There was some poor French girl on hand to hear them. Or Idella and Avis, poor mutts, in there trying to scrape something together for his supper. He scared them all. He couldn’t help himself. It was seeing them scurry around the table trying to put food out, afraid to look at him for fear he’d light into them, that brought it on—the temper, the hurt, the anger at the goddamned world that had taken Emma away and left him alone. It wasn’t them he’d be mad at. But it was them that got the brunt.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking of the hardscrabble lives these girls led, but what I came away with as a reader was the joy they shared, the strength they manifested and expected of themselves and of each other. These stories of ordinary people carving out lives in what can only be called dire circumstances are uplifting and somehow serve as social-political commentary as certainly as if they had been written as manifestos. I recommend them to you wholeheartedly. If you like Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, you will like Beverly Jensen.