When a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds' heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can't, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who've brought them. These spinster sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health. But back in the summer of 1947, Milly and Twiss knew nothing about trying to mend what had been accidentally broken. Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn't change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn't exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly's eye. And, most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever. Rebecca Rasmussen's masterfully written debut novel is full of hope and beauty, heartbreak and sacrifice, love and the power of sisterhood, and offers wonderful surprises at every turn.
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Beth Hoffman Interviews Rebecca Rasmussen
Beth Hoffman, author of the New York Times bestseller Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, talks about her experience of reading The Bird Sisters and interviews Rebecca Rasmussen.
Beth Hoffman: Every now and then a book falls into my hands that moves me to the point where I stop everything I’m doing and devour the pages. The voice is always the first hook, then the characters and prose, and finally the story. To find such a book is exciting, and when I opened The Bird Sisters and began to read, I knew I was in for a wonderful experience. Rendered with a delicate but assured hand, this is a poignant and bittersweet tale that explores the joys and wounds of familial love and the shocking pain of betrayal. Rebecca Rasmussen has crafted a unique, beautiful debut novel, and I’m delighted to chat with her about The Bird Sisters.
Rebecca, the sense of place in your novel is lovely and fully actualized. What was the reason you chose the rural setting of Spring Green, Wisconsin?
Hoffman: Milly and Twiss are such unique, singular characters, have you known anyone like them?
Rasmussen: My older brother and I are a lot like them. My brother is a great adventurer like Twiss, and I am more cautious like Milly. When we were kids, my brother was the one who’d set off on all-day adventures in the woods, and I would straggle along behind him hoping not to get caught up in the tangle of pricker bushes behind our house. As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown a bit more moderate. He can sit still for a whole hour now, and I don’t jump on his back when I sense danger nearby. We love each other the way Milly and Twiss do. I can’t bear for him to be sad, and he can’t bear it for me.
Hoffman: I took away from your story a certain symbolism of the damaged birds. What do they represent to you?
Rasmussen: The novel began for me with lines I happened upon in an Emily Dickinson poem: “These are the days when Birds come back/A very few--a Bird or two--/To take a backward look.” I have always loved birds on a literal and metaphorical level, and like most children I was deeply fascinated with their ability to come and to go whenever they pleased. In the novel, the older Milly and Twiss have spent their lives nursing birds back to health, mostly because an ordinary starling struck their car at a fateful moment when they were young. On that day, the sisters no longer possessed the power to change their futures and so they took this little bird back to their leaning farmhouse, hoping it would recover from its injuries and take flight for them.
Hoffman: If you had to pick only one scene as your favorite, what would it be, and why?
Rasmussen: One of the most wonderful things about small farming towns to me is when the townspeople gather together to celebrate something: a marriage, a graduation, or even the end of the summer in some places. Town fairs are especially magical to me. I love to think about spun sugar, apples in barrels, and pies sitting on checkered tablecloths. Put a town fair in a historical setting; add a little bit of quack medicine in the form of bathtub elixirs, a propeller plane, and a goat named Hoo-Hoo; and there you have it: the climax of the novel and also my favorite scene.
Hoffman: A debut novel is, for many writers, their heart and soul; we open a vein and give so much to our firstborn. What did it feel like to finally complete your story?
Rasmussen: I was alone when I typed the last words, and it was very late at night. A part of me wanted to wake my husband and my daughter, to open a bottle of champagne, and to celebrate with the people I loved most in the world. What I ended up doing was taking a walk to the waterfall and millpond up the road. I remember the way the moon looked in the sky. I remember the sound of falling water. I remember the call of an owl high up in a tree. I remember the lightness of my heart, my feet. If giving birth to my daughter was the first great accomplishment of my life, finishing my book was the second.
I grew up in Spring Green, Wisconsin, but I also grew up in Northfield, Illinois--sadly, when I was a baby, my parents divorced. Because my life was split between the two places, I never really felt that either belonged to me and I still don't today. I suppose that's why in my fiction, I pay very close attention to place; I'm constantly searching for a way to make home feel like home. My stories tend to come out of the swollen look of a river, or an iced over fishing hole, or a bird on a winter branch. The idea for The Bird Sisters came out of two things: my curiosity about my grandmother and her family history, and my devotion to finding the answer to the ongoing question in my life: what does it mean to be home? For Milly and Twiss, I extended the question a little bit further: what does it mean to stay there? My grandmother Kathryn--Kit, she liked to be called--lost both of her parents when she was seventeen, her mother by way of Scarlett Fever (although the people who knew her best said she died of a broken heart) and her father by way of a broken leg and then a fatal blood clot. Her father, my great grandfather, was a wonderfully talented golfer who gave lessons to wealthy members of whatever golf course he was working at. Unfortunately, my great grandfather turned out to be a wonderfully talented philanderer, too. Those are the facts; what interests me is what came between them. My grandmother lived her life with questions about her parents that she couldn't bring herself to ask. "They were the best parents ever," she'd say one day, but then another she'd say, "I don't know if they really were." She carried a loneliness around inside of her that she couldn't bear to share with anyone because talking about what had happened made her more and more uncertain about whether or not she was loved. My grandmother had a sister named Virginia, whom she wrote a card to a few times a year and visited even less frequently. I've always wondered what might have happened if she and Virginia had been able to hold onto each other when everything else was slipping away from them. I've always wondered if my grandmother might have then found happiness in her life. Milly and Twiss are my gift to her, my proof of love. The book is a gift to myself, proof that I have a home in the hills of Spring Green, in the green of the rivergrass and the brown of the fields beyond. Writing the book, which I completed during my tenure in the MFA Program at the University of Massachusetts, has taught me that home doesn't always translate to four sturdy white walls. The Bird Sisters is my first novel.
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