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The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay
Beverly Jensen
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INTRODUCTION

Raised in the rugged countryside of eastern Canada, Idella and Avis Hillock are scrappy, smart, and adventurous. Their lives shaped by early misfortune, the sisters become strong women who can fend for themselves and make the best out of what life gives them. Although close, Idella and Avis are different in temperament and ambition, and as Idella pursues love and family, Avis follows a rough–and–tumble life filled with drinking and carousing; neither, however, escapes heartache. Poignant, honest, and often laugh–out–loud funny, Beverly Jensen's The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay is both epic and intimate as it traces the lives of Idella and Avis for over seventy years, beginning with their childhood in New Brunswick and following them into old age in New England.

A series of linked stories, The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay begins with the profoundly affecting "Gone," about the defining tragedy of the young girls' lives and includes Jensen's acclaimed story "Wake," the bitterly funny and oddly touching tale of Avis and her brother Dalton's attempt to bring their father's body home for his funeral. "Wake," nominated for a Pushcart Prize and chosen for the 2007 edition of the Best American Short Stories series, highlights the wit, clarity of emotion, and subtlety that define Jensen's writing, but the story behind her work is as compelling as her stories themselves. In 2003, Jensen passed away from cancer, without ever having published her work. Her husband, along with her former writing instructor and friends, collaborated to publish Jensen's stories. Jensen's incisive and affecting prose quickly gathered a devoted following of editors and celebrated authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, and Elizabeth Strout, all of whom continue to champion her writing.

Readers will no doubt embrace Jensen's work with equal enthusiasm. The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay is moving without being sentimental and shines a light on the ordinary lives of two extraordinary women in whom readers will see their own mothers, grandmothers, or even themselves. Jensen understood that life is filled with compromises and even disappointments, but is also punctuated by humor and great joy. Her book neatly captures that balance. Whether it's Idella's marriage to the philandering Eddie or Avis's stint in prison, the sisters demonstrate a fierce inner strength and instinct for survival matched only by an ability to laugh at themselves. For more than seventy years, the one constant in their lives is each other, and The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay is Jensen's pitch–perfect ode to the blend of rivalry, frustration, appreciation, and all–encompassing love that is sisterhood.


ABOUT BEVERLY JENSEN

Beverly Jensen

Beverly Jensen grew up in Maine and earned an MFA in drama from Southern Methodist University. Since her death in 2003, her work has been published in The New England Review and included in the story collection Sisters: An Anthology. She is survived by her husband, Jay Silverman, and their two children.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. In what ways is Avis and Idella's relationship an accurate portrayal of sibling rivalry and affection? Of Idella and Avis, which did you identify or empathize with more and why?

  2. Was Bill Hillock a good father? Pick an incident in the novel that supports your opinion.

  3. What happened to Avis and Idella's mother? On p. 18, Mrs. Jaegel and Mrs. Pettigrew discuss how the doctor threw a packet of pills in the fire after Emma Hillock gave birth. Why is this significant?

  4. Discuss the male characters in the novel. What similarities, if any, do you see in their personalities or behaviors? Are there any recurring themes within the relationships—romantic and otherwise—that Avis and Idella have with these men?

  5. Avis's green dress from Aunt Francie "never got worn, not even once" (p. 116). Why didn't Avis ever wear this dress? Why did she react to Idella's dress in the way she did?

  6. What happens to Fred's car? How does he react? Did Avis and Idella treat him fairly?

  7. Does Eddie love Idella? Do they have a strong marriage? Is a strong marriage the same thing as a happy one?

  8. Pick your favorite chapter from the book. If you were going to make a movie of it, who would you cast and why?

  9. On p. 299, Idella refers to "the rumors" about Avis's relationship with her father. What does she mean? What is Avis's response?

  10. How did Avis and Idella change through the course of the book? Look at their personalities and their relationship with each other both as children and as elderly women. Did their lives turn out at as you—or they—expected?

  11. How would you compare your family with either the Hillocks or the Jensens?