It’s amazing how one mistake, one mistimed incident, can affect a family for decades. Mabel and Alberta (Bertie) Fischer, the protagonists of Nancy Jensen’s heartbreaking debut novel, The Sisters, are teenagers from Juniper, Kentucky. Their father died in World War I, when they were too young to really know him, and their mother marries a man so villainous that he borders on caricature. When the mother dies, the girls are left defenseless. Mabel has a plan, but that plan goes very wrong and results in generations of wounded women.
Jensen, whose novel was inspired by a rift in her own family that no one ever knew the cause of, helpfully provides a genealogical chart at the beginning of her book, and it’s sometimes needed. Yet she’s such an accomplished writer that she gives each character her own drama, and her own pain. There’s Mabel and Bertie, the recipients of the original wound. Mabel triumphs over disaster to become a renowned photographer, while Bertie marries a man she respects but never quite comes to love, though their marriage is successful and lasts for decades. As the mother of Alma and Rainey, Bertie is often withholding; the reader feels her view of life is to muddle through and endure it. Mabel rescues a little girl from the same sort of monstrous home life she suffered, then raises her, with great love, as her own daughter.
The story of the Fischer sisters is a woman’s story. The men are tangential, save Hans, Bertie’s steadfast husband. Bertie and Hans remind the reader—who may be more used to tales of breathless passion—that a couple can quietly abide together out of goodwill and the tasks of raising a family and running a home. The other Fischer women tend not to be as fortunate.
While Jensen’s men aren’t as richly drawn as her female characters, they too are pulled, without their knowledge, into the Fischer women’s trauma. Would these women have married the men they married, or not married the men they didn’t marry, had the thing that happened when Mabel and Bertie were girls been avoided? It’s no surprise that Rainey’s eccentric daughter Grace makes chain-link armor. Jensen’s book deftly explores both the armor and the links that went into creating and sustaining the wounded Fischers.