In the beginning pages of this novel, we meet two elderly women, sisters Twiss and Milly, living alone in the house where they grew up in Spring Green, Wisconsin. They spend their days tending to injured birds and roaming their land, lost in memories.
For Milly, there is the constant reminder of what could have been. While in their childhoods, Twiss happily trailed after their golf-pro father, and Milly dreamed about a family and children that never happened.
When an unexpected accident derails their father’s golf-pro career and leads to his retreat into the barn, their mother sinks into her own kind of retreat, filled with a gunny-sack full of regrets. A cousin’s visit to the farm seems like a respite from the family drama, but instead it sets in motion a series of events that are complicated by family loyalty, rivalries, and unfathomable sacrifice. In the end, the two sisters are alone, sustained only by the strength of their bond to one another and to their memories and dreams of the past.
From the beginning of this character-driven novel, Milly and Twiss tugged at those parts of my emotion and memory that took me to points in my own life when choices turned my life in one direction or another. I could feel and connect to the losses, the sacrifices, and then I pondered how one goes on after these kinds of disappointments. At this point in my own life, with much of it behind me, I find myself doing what these characters did in the book…traipsing backward on memory pathways, reexamining events with the perspective of time and perhaps seeing it all in a more positive way. As if things happened the way they were supposed to. There was a moment in Milly’s latter years when she sees Asa, the man she dreamed about in her youth. They share a walk across the street, a moment or two of silence, and a few words, described in this passage:
“The two of them walked together only a hundred yards that day, out the front door of the general store and across the street to the car, where Milly had left Twiss reading the Farmers’ Almanac and drinking a cream soda. That walk was the happiest of Milly’s life. She and Asa didn’t say anything to each other until they got to the car, which Twiss had abandoned momentarily for the hardware store. The almanac lay open on the passenger seat, and the empty bottle of soda lay on the floor.
“Milly and Asa walked along the sidewalk as if they had always done so; their pace was slower since they were old now, but it was still synchronized the way it was when they’d walked through the meadow. This time, there were no black rat snakes, no reasons to jump onto Asa’s back or for Asa to hold her….
” ‘It was good to see you,’ he said. ‘You’re as lovely as I remember.’ ”
These are just a few of the heart-felt moments that litter this tale that can be summed up in words like betrayal, disappointment, rivalry, and sacrifice; it can also be described as picking up the pieces of what is left behind. The Bird Sisters made me feel all of my own moments in my life and pierced them with the prism of perspective and acceptance.