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"When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person as if my life were a story being told to someone else."
Abigail Schiller lives a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic commuinity in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is ...
"When my brother disappeared in 1984, I began to see myself in the third person as if my life were a story being told to someone else."
Abigail Schiller lives a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic commuinity in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling's dark descent—embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything, she once believed about her family and herself.
A stunning work of rare poignance and unsettling power, A. Manette Ansay's Sister marks the literary maturation of a truly exceptional voice in contemporary American fiction. Deftly spinning triumph out of tragedy, the award-winning author of Vinegar Hill offers us a fresh understanding, of family, memory, faith.Abigail Schiller lives in a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father's rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling's dark descent—embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything she once believed her family and herself.
A stunning work of race poignance and unsettling power, A. Manette Ansay's Sister marks the literary maturation of a truly exceptional voice in contemporary American fiction. Deftly spinning triumph out of tragedy, the award-winning author of Vinegar Hill Offers us a fresh understanding of family, memory, and faith.
In her remarkable second novel, the author of Vinegar Hill tells the story of Abigail Schiller, a girl raised in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. Abby's younger brother, unable to survive his father's abuse, succumbs to drugs and violence and leaves town. Haunted by memories of him and unable to find her place in the church or within her family, Abby soon flees, too, with hopes of solving the mystery of her brother's disappearance.
The characters are vivid, the reconstruction of events suspenseful and convincing. Abby, the narrator, now 30, married, settled in New York State, and pregnant with her first child, is haunted by the memory of her younger brother's baffling disappearance from their hometown of Horton, Wisconsin, one summer afternoon in 1984, 12 years before; he was never seen again. At an emotional turning point, Abby finds herself reliving Sam's slow deterioration from the sweet, imaginative, charming best buddy of her grade-school years to the defiant, self-destructive dropout who vanished on the heels of a series of town robberies. She traces his troubles primarily to her father's paranoid, unrelenting ridicule of Sam's "sissified" interests—and his jealousy of the boy's attachment to Abby. As familiar as these family dynamics are, the author superbly dramatizes scenes of the father's sarcastic nastiness and the kids' humiliation. The result is chilling and memorable—making the story's mild, unconvincing later developments all the more disappointing. After Sam's disappearance, Abby's father goes berserk and leaves the family; her mother becomes an increasingly devout Catholic; and Abby loses both her religious faith and her interest in a career as a musician. When, at the end, Sam's body is discovered buried in a field near the old family home, answers to all remaining mysteries (how did he die? when and why?) get swallowed up in a sentimental subplot concerning whether or not Abby will baptize the new baby.
A gifted writer who needs to pace herself.
I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what I feel, a teenage girl towering over her grandmother at the back of this small Wisconsin church. There is the altar boy in his cumbersome smock, peeking out from the doors off the sacristy,excused from English or Math or Civics to serve the daily noon Mass. There are the men on their lunch breaks, the smattering of older retired men, and so many women!--young mothers with their sleeping babies, older mothers in groups of three and four, and the dozens of widows, women like my grandmother, who are the raw heart of this church. When they speak, you hear the older languages floating around their tongues. They wear their hair in tight, curly nests; thin gold bands still dent their fourth fingers. They carry what they need in big black purses, secured with fist-like clasps, these women who remember times without bread when they had to feed themselves and their families on their own ingenuity and the Word.
The men of my grandfather's generation were like visitors, cherished as guests who could not be relied on to stay for very long. They went off to war and disappeared, they were crushed under heavy farm machinery, they shot each other by accident and on purpose, they fell off horses and rooftops and silos, drowned in rivers, succumbed to snakebite, emphysema, whiskey. After my grandfather died of tetanus in I947, my grandmother raised their four daughters and maintained the farm; when land taxes threatened to rise, it was she who sent the oldest two, Mary and Elise, to work in the cannery. Men died young; you mourned, you kept their graves tenderly, and--somehow--you went on. But when fire broke out, snuffing the lives of those daughters and fifteen other girls into ash, the shock left Oneisha and all the surrounding towns senseless with grief. These girls were the seed of the community, some of them already married and putting down roots like their mothers. A tragedy like this must have happened for a reason, and for some, that reason was all too clear. A girl's place was in the home, not working for cash in an ungodly world where company owners locked fire doors, paranoid about theft. My grandmother was thirty-eight years old. For the rest of her life she would blame herself for my young aunts' deaths. She sold the farm and moved her remaining daughters to town, where she kept them close to her, forever close. By the time I was born, in I965, she was in her fifties, sharp and strong. God-like.
We pause at the back of the church, lingering the way polite guests do before walking toward the area where we always sit, the heels of my grandmother's short boots meeting the floor with absolute certainty. I stay close behind her, feeling every inch of my height, my feet kicking after one another like loosely tossed stones. A place to sit. For some there are choices. One might choose to go all the way to the front, to sit half hidden from the lectern by the bulky old confessionals; one might stay by the new, modern confessionals at the back. There are favorite seats beside the pillars that support the fat, curved belly of the ceiling, with its painting of angels ministering to Mary as she walks in the cherry orchard; there are seats beneath the mounted statues, where a child might sit to admire the delicate toes of the apostles. But we sit in the middle of the church, away from the pillars, the statues, potential distractions, away from the drafts that pulse from beneath the warped frames of the windows, whisper from the long, dark line where the walls meet the floor. My grandmother rubs the knuckles of my hand with her thumb, her peculiar gesture of affection, and I glow with her touch, with the knowing looks of the women around us who observe me at Mass, day after day, and whisper the word vocation. Sometimes I am asked to sing while the other parishioners kneel at the altar, five at a time, to receive Communion. My musical talent, like all good things, is God's gift, and such a gift is both a blessing and a burden. You wonder if you are worthy. You wonder what God might expect in return.
I want you to be here with us. I want you to feel what we feel. This is the tray that holds the hymnal, attached to the back of the next pew. This is the old-fashioned hat clip beside it. That is the altar with its hand-sewn linens, which are laundered by the Ladies of the Altar. Here are the flowers these same women bring with them from their gardens or sunrooms to decorate the church. These are the woven wicker baskets that will be circulated twice during the course of the Mass by old Otto Leibenstein: once to help the missionaries, once to maintain the parish. And some where in the sacristy, trapped in a ring of gold, is the Body of Christ, the miracle that results again and again from the Mass. The Processional is about to begin, and you know exactly what to do, feel the weight of two thousand years behind each simple ritual. You cannot imagine a time when this feeling of absolute purpose will leave you. You cannot imagine losing your faith. You cannot imagine the loneliness.
Copyright ) 1996 by A. Manette Ansay
About this Book:
About to become a mother, 30-year-old Abby is compelled to look back at her own roots and try to come to terms with her unhappy, frequently violent family history. As children on a Wisconsin farm, Abby and her brother Sam lived in perpetual fear of their father's harsh mockery and his firm enforcement of the only social code he could accept, according to which the girl's place is in the home and the boy must live up to a rigid, narrow idea of "masculinity." The teenage Abby, offered an alternate world of faith and order, is able to survive; Sam, with no safe haven from his father's bullying, descends into a world of violence and hatred and, at the age of 17, disappears from home. Haunted by guilt, rejecting not only her family's code but their Catholic faith, Abby, too, moves away.
Years later, and in spite of her new, peaceful life, Abby is still unable to put her turbulent emotions to rest. It is not until the secret of Sam's disappearance is uncovered that she finally comes to terms with her parents, her Catholic upbringing and her feelings of responsibility for her brother. SISTER is the poignant story of a woman's search for memory and meaning, the reconciliation of present and past.
Praise for this book:
"Ansay's dramatic rendering of people and events --a form...that finds luminous precedent in the works of Connor or Shirley Jackson--lends apowerful edginess to her prose. In the end, SISTER carves out some new, interesting terrain in a genre one might dub 'Midwestern Gothic.'"--The Boston Sunday Globe
"SISTER takes the breath away like a blow to the stomach.... While Abby's grief is raw even 10 years later, Ansay never lapses into sentimentality. Because Abby dreads as well as aches for Sam, SISTER is more than an elegy--it is a relentless and shattering remembrance."--Time Out New York
"On just about every page of this deeply satisfying story you will find a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that makes you feel the wonder and the terror of these scarred, ineluctably entwined lives."--Elle
"A soul aches here, and the future seems forlorn. But SISTER rises above that with its frankness and acuity, and the rhythmic beauty of its prose."--The New York Times Book Review
1. A. Manette Ansay begins her story with a quote from James McConkey: "Memory is, I believe, the human soul." Why has she chosen this particular phrase to characterize her novel? Would you say that this is a novel about memory?
2. In the culture Ansay describes, the male and female worlds are rigidly separated. "It was clear," Abby states, "that growing up meant one thing for Sam and, for me, something else" (p. 58). Why have such different gender models evolved? What functions have they served? How destructive are they to young people?
3. In what ways does the fire at the cannery continue to haunt the family 30 years after it happened? How has the memory of the fire contributed to forming the character and world views of the grandmother, the mother and even Abby herself, who was born years later?
4. Do you find Gordon Schiller to be a villain, or is he instead a pathetic, fearful man? Why is he so terrified that Sam might grow up to be a "sissy?" What aspects of his own character might Gordon be afraid to confront?
5. How does the religious atmosphere of her grandmother's house help to cure Abby from her breakdown? Why does Abby pray for a vocation? Why does she eventually reject her Catholic beliefs? Why do you think Abby's mother becomes increasingly religious after Sam's disappearance?
6. After Gordon leaves for Florida, Therese says, "Maybe your grandmother is right.... Maybe this is all my fault. Maybe I should have stayed home with you kids and kept house and agreed with everything your father said. Maybe that should have been enough" (p. 159). Would it have been, do you think? If his mother had stayed home, might Sam have been saved? Why does Therese's mother and family agree with Gordon that a woman should not work?
7. "I was angry with my father, but even more so with Sam, because he did not fight back" (p. 64), Abby says. How would you explain Sam's behavior with his father: is it passivity? Fear? Do you think that by asserting himself more Sam might have defied his father, or was he in a situation he could not have won? What kind of person might Sam had been without his father's taunts and bullying?
8. On page 96, Abby describes an intense, recurring dream. What is the meaning of this dream within the structure of Abby's life? Abby feels that she saved herself by abandoning her brother. Is there truth in this belief? By acting differently, might Abby have saved both herself and Sam?
9. Why does Abby's father make her smoke cigarettes on her 13th birthday? What sort of challenge is he posing her?
10. How much do you blame Abby's mother for going along with her husband's acts of cruelty toward their children? Is she what people would now call an "enabler?" To what extent, if any, does she protect the children from their father? Does she in fact protect herself at the expense of them? Do you think that any real love existed between the parents during the years Abby describes?
11. Why does Abby give up music and singing? Would you call this a self- destructive act, or an act of self-preservation? Why does her decision to stop studying music occur simultaneously with her realization that she no longer believes in the Church?
12. How do you explain Gordon's transformation from a bully to a man "nearly paralyzed with fear" (p. 175)? Does this transformation make sense to you, in the context of his character as it has been established? What is Gordon afraid of? Has he always been afraid?
13. Phoebe says to Abby, "People believe what they want" (p. 130). Later, Abby decides that people also "want to believe" (p. 189). At the end of the book, Abby's mother defines faith as "the ability to believe. The ability to see beyond the place where you are" (p. 226). Do you agree with the mother's assessment that faith is something Sam fatally lacked? What has faith done for Abby? Do you feel that Abby regains faith at the end of the novel? What, if anything, has her faith to do with religion?
14. A. Manette Ansay depicts the Wisconsin landscape with great care. In what way does the physical world of the novel affect the lives of the characters? How does it reflect what is going on in the characters' emotional world?
15. Do you think that Abby's decision to marry a man without religious beliefs was a deliberate one? Why might she have made this decision? In your opinion, was it the right one?
About the Author:
A. Manette Ansay is a graduate of Cornell University's MFA program. Her acclaimed first novel, Vinegar Hill, won a Friends of American Writers Prize and was cited as one of the Best Books of 1994 by the Chicago Tribune. Her story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, was awarded the Associated Writing Programs Short Fiction Series. She is the 1992 winner of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Prize and a 1993 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in many publications, including The North American Review, Story and The Pushcart Prize XIX: Best of the Small Presses. Ms. Ansay lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee, and teaches in the MFA program at Warren Wilson College.
Posted April 19, 2007
This book was simply 'OK'. I had high hopes for it after reading 'Midnight Champagne' which I thoroughly loved. I was somewhat disappointed. While I liked the idea, it seemed more like Abby was talking about her brother than herself, and thus: Why title it 'Sister'? It was a good read overall, but I doubt I'll be picking up again anytime soon--if at all.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 16, 2002
I¿m the sort of person that enjoys to read books about mysteries or love, so this book, Sister, wasn¿t really one that I cared for a lot. It¿s basically about a family where the parents have a ten-year age difference and have some conflicts with their parenting styles. The story is told through the eyes of the daughter, Abigail Schiller. Through out the book Abby tells about her life and all of the struggles she has to deal with. A major part of the book Abby talks about her brother Sam who is changed from an innocent, art loving child, to a delinquent boy, all because of her fathers harsh rules and punishments. As the story progresses it becomes more depressing and difficult to handle, and that¿s why I rated this book a six. Another reason why I gave it a six is because it¿s not a book that I would ever really want to read again because it was so sad. I enjoy happier books that have a sense of closure at the end.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2002