The second half of the word “hardscrabble” comes from the Dutch schrabbelen, "to scratch," as in “to scratch out a living” and other familiar phrases. This is just what Idella and Avis, the titular sisters in Beverly Jensen’s beautiful work The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, accomplish: they work, scratch, laugh and scramble their way through the pages of this amazing book.
Jensen didn’t live to see her work in print. She died of cancer in 2003 at the age of 49, before any of her writings could be published. After her death, her husband's efforts at publicity brought attention to her work, and a number of well-known authors, including Howard Frank Mosher and Joyce Carol Oates, went on to champion her writing. Many of her short stories were anthologized, and one, “Wake,” was selected by author Stephen King for inclusion in Best American Short Stories of 2007.
This novel-in-stories focuses on sisters Idella and Avis, characters based on Jensen’s own mother and aunt. Their life in New Brunswick, Canada, near the end of World War I, is hardscrabble indeed: In the first story they are barely eight and six years old when their mother dies after giving birth to a baby girl.
No big epiphanies attend the lives of these two sisters as they make their way into the United States in their late teens. There Idella, the elder, marries and settle in Maine. Idella’s thin but sturdy frame echoes her approach to life, as she endures and somehow survives an unhinged mother-in-law and a wandering husband, while Avis lives a more peripatetic existence, dotted with a high turnover of boyfriends. But the book is not about plot turns. Its beauty and strength are in the small exchanges and heart-tugging vignettes that jump from nearly every page.
Here a few words can transform a tragic circumstance into a wry and humorous scene, or turn the gift of a fancy dress from a moment of joy to one of jealousy and pathos. Whether sharing their own pratfalls or their incisive takes on human nature, when Idella and Avis are together they are unstoppable. From a night on the town in “The Opera” to a hilarious ride in the country in “Cherry Cider” to the flinty sadness of “Wake,” we’re in thrall to these remarkable stories. This duo will steal readers’ hearts, while leaving a sense of sadness that there will be no more to come from this talented writer.
Barbara Clark writes from South Yarmouth, Massachusetts.