AT THE HEART of The Bird Sisters is the enduring bond between sisters in the midst of a world that has not lived up to its promise and a family that refuses to behave as one. This lovely and devastating debut novel, grounded vividly in its setting on a rural Wisconsin farm, confronts us with the question of how much we are called to sacrifice for our kin and how far such a sacrifice can sustain us.
While the world has changed around them since the summer of 1947, spinster sisters Milly and Twiss are still living together on the ramshackle farm of their childhood in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The aging women have in some ways never fully grown up and cling to each other and the ghosts of their past life. Having sacrificed the possibility of families and lives outside of Spring Green, they focus their energy on rescuing injured birds. Through this pursuit, Twiss finds solace and a degree of freedom: “In order to repair a wing properly . . . you had to understand what it was like to have one, which led to much mental soaring around the countryside, much unskilled flapping in the bathroom.” While there is redemption to be found in healing and freeing the damaged birds, there is also a dark irony to it — the sisters return to the birds a freedom they themselves will never have. The birds serve as an escape, an endless cycle of reviving childhood dreams.
The book seamlessly shifts between the present and the summer of 1947, back when they were still teenagers, Milly falling in love for the first time in the purple meadow by their house, and Twiss losing herself in the woods around their farm, dreaming of becoming a scientist or an explorer. But their father, whose lavish desires and obsession with golf have bankrupted the family, has moved into the barn. As their parents’ marriage dissolves, the girls are shown a dark window into adulthood, the limits of faith, and the world outside of Spring Green. Ultimately left alone, the sisters take refuge in each other and the farm.
A poignant sense of loss and disillusionment, compounded by the constant shifts from past to present, create a dreamlike shroud of memory that pervades the book and leaves the reader beautifully disoriented. As the chapters alternate, it often takes a moment to place the decade — the sisters still share a room with twin beds in their seventies. Meanwhile, the unchanging place — the cottage, the barn, and the cold Wisconsin River — roots the girls like trees to their home as they struggle to recover their fragile and timeless childhood world.
In Rasmussen’s hands, the rugged Wisconsin landscape is a character in itself. From the purple meadow from which Twiss concocts the “Purple Prairie Tonic” (a cure-all she promises will bring happiness to all who drink it), to the dark and chilling Wisconsin River, which regularly claims lives, the land enchants and tests them both. But even at its harshest, it is still the refuge that once brought their family together:
The day that a tornado actually touched down in their own little purple meadow, Twiss’s father…held…them with one arm and cradled the book [of fairy tales] with the other. Even after the tornado whirled back up into the clouds and on to another humble plot of land, he read — all the way through — until he got to the words, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’
The girls protect this illusion of safety, of a fairy-tale family, finding grace in the life they build together.
Twiss and Milly’s quirks and their odd relationship bring humor and charm to an otherwise heartbreaking tale. Where The Bird Sisters really soars is in its unsentimental characters, stubborn and flawed, with their deep need for human connection. Milly and Twiss’s mystical understanding of the world as understood at age fourteen persists as a tonic to their misfortunes, and it is a world you won’t want to leave.