Now in their 70s, Milly and Twiss live in their family home, on a gravel road near the small town of Spring Green, Wisconsin. They are known for miles around as the “bird sisters,” for their ability to treat and rehabilitate injured birds, but fewer and fewer people visit them these days. Their days are filled with light chores, walks through the meadow, and sometimes, for Milly, a bit of baking. Mostly they reflect back on lives well lived, but touched by significant events when Milly was 16 and Twiss, 14.
Their parents’ relationship was already strained when their father had a car accident that prevented him from returning to his job as the local golf pro. Robbed of the one thing that gave him pride and a sense of identity, he isolated himself in the barn, eating meals left for him by one of the girls. Their mother came from a wealthy family, but left those comforts behind when she married. Filled with bitterness, she was unable to comfort her husband. Enter 18-year-old cousin Bett, who comes to stay for the summer, allegedly to improve her health. Her visit leaves an indelible mark on the family and even touches the surrounding community.
The central conflict in this debut novel was easy to predict, and there were some plot elements which seemed superfluous, especially the story of a local priest. The book moves fluidly between present and past, which can be confusing at times. The novel succeeds because of Milly and Twiss, richly-developed characters who are always front and center. Milly was considered a beauty in her youth, and gained local recognition for her creative cakes. Twiss was a rebel, fiercely devoted to Milly and her father, but not at all to her mother. Their father, mother, and Bett stand just slightly in the background, very influential but somewhat less tangible. I would have liked to know more about these characters: what were the father and mother like in their early years? How did the father get started with golf, and how did it come to be his life force? And what about Bett’s health issues? I also hoped to read more about Twiss and Milly’s bird rescue efforts. I realize my interest is greater from having been a bird rescue volunteer, but the title implies this will be given more emphasis than it was.
Despite the novel’s flaws, I really enjoyed this book. I found myself caught up in the domestic drama, and moved by the relationship between the aging sisters. Rebecca Rasmussen made effective use of foreshadowing, and even so there were some particularly fine “aha moments.” The final chapters tugged at my heartstrings, and I was sad to say good-bye to Milly and Twiss.