Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly. ~Langston Hughes
The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen’s debut novel which explores the life and relationship between two sisters living in the small town of Spring Green, Wisconsin, is one of the most tender, luminous, hopeful yet heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. It’s a story about damaged things – birds, yes, put people most of all- and the ability of love to make them whole again.
Twiss and Milly (The Bird Sisters) have spent their entire lives on the family farm in Spring Green, Wisconsin. They take in broken winged birds, and do their best to nurse them back to health. These small, damaged creatures have become the repository for all the love and affection the sisters have to give. The book opens in the present day, but quickly takes the reader back to the girls’ childhood in the late 1940’s, and, in particular to one summer when their cousin Bett pays a visit and changes their lives for ever.
As the story unfolds, we come to know and love Twiss, and her eccentric tomboy-ish ness, Milly, the self-sacrificing “good girl” who longs for a “normal” family life but who will sacrifice it to what she perceives as the greater good. As for their parents – their ne’er do well father, with his lost dreams of golfing grandeur, their long-suffering mother who gave up everything for “love” and was then disappointed by it -we temper our annoyance with sympathy, for after all, they too must live with the shards of broken dreams.
The symbolism of the bird is particularly poignant in this novel, for this creature of freedom and beauty who is able to fly above the earth and all its sorrows becomes a symbol of hope and dreams for Twiss and Milly. Even though their lives are spent in this one small place, it is, after all, the only home they’ve ever known. And since the book travels back and forth in time, we come to know Milly and Twiss in their lives as old women and we see how their love and sisterhood has sustained them even when their dreams are broken like the birds they try to nurture back to life.
Rasmussen’s first novel is a glorious debut, the type of book that stands with classic coming of age stories, but is so intimate in the telling that it feels as if it’s being told to you alone. It’s a book to savor and cherish, one to share with people you love, and one to tuck away safely on the shelf to be read again and again.