The Oleander Sisters

The Oleander Sisters

by Elaine Hussey

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594721864
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: 07/29/2014
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 134,490
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elaine Hussey is a writer, actress, and musician who likes to describe herself as “southern to the bone.” She lives in Mississippi, where her love of blues and admiration for the unsung heroes of her state’s history served as inspiration for The Sweetest Hallelujah. Visit her at www.elainehussey.com.

Read an Excerpt

The day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon marked a summer where anything at all could happen. The brother you'd given up for dead in a war everybody hated could suddenly turn up alive, and the sister you'd protected all her life could finally be getting married. Any other woman would have been happy with the sudden turn of good fortune, but not Sis Blake. She was scared of happiness. Let too much joy seep into your life and you'd soon find yourself hunkered beside twisted wreckage wondering what you did to make everything turn out so wrong.

As if Sis needed any more evidence than her own history to tell her something awful was heading her way, the Amen cobbler cooling in the kitchen at Sweet Mama's Café gave off the scent of secrets, a spicy smell so sharp it could cut away everything you held dear.

Still, Sis kept her troubled thoughts to herself. There was no sense spoiling things for her sister. Emily was humming as she sliced into the cobbler, serving up hope by the spoonful.

"Eat up, Sis." Emily's face was radiant with happiness and heat from the ovens. "It's the best I've ever made."

Sis forced herself to eat so she wouldn't be the one who wiped the smile off her sister's face, and Emily went back to her baking and humming, every now and then glancing out the back café window.

What was she seeing besides a backyard lit up with red and blue Christmas lights, though it was July and so hot in Bi-loxi the seagulls abandoned the beaches along the Mississippi Sound and pecked at Sweet Mama's display windows trying to get inside where it was air-conditioned? Was Emily seeing a six-year-old son who needed a daddy? Was she seeing a little boy born out of wedlock and tagged with ugly rumors by a few vicious gossips Sweet Mama had run out of the café with a broom? Or was she seeing what Sis did, an endearing little boy in an outgrown Superman suit who was thriving in a family of women?

Even that worried Sis. Get too complacent and bad luck would hunt you down. The bite of Amen cobbler went down hard and sat in Sis's stomach like an accusation.

"I've gotta get going or I'll be late." Glad for an excuse to push aside the cobbler, she hugged her sister, then hurried out the door, climbed into her sturdy black Valiant and headed toward the bus station.

Sis whizzed along the beach road, replaying the evening two weeks earlier when Emily had walked into Sweet Mama's Café on the arm of a stranger and announced, "This is the man I'm going to marry." Then she'd gone to every table and booth to show off her engagement ring, a stone so big it was bound to be a cubic zirconia.

Many of the diners were regulars who had watched Emily grow up, mostly at the café, shielded by the wide skirts and fierce heart of Sweet Mama. They knew how Mark Jones had gotten her pregnant, then run off to join the army to get out of marrying her, and they were happy she'd finally found somebody who would love her back.

Sis tried to be, too, but she was not the kind of woman to be swept off her feet. Emily's fiancé was handsome in the too-slick way that made her skin crawl. Every time Sis glanced at him, he was checking his reflection in the Coca-Cola mirror behind Sweet Mama's soda fountain.

Still, Emily had obviously seen something in her fiancé that Sis missed, so she'd trotted over to her future brother-in-law, determined to learn more about him.

"Larry, I guess you already know I'm the watchdog of the family."

"You don't do yourselfjustice, Sis." His smile was wide and easy, this pharmaceutical salesman named Larry Chastain, who had swept Emily off her feet six weeks earlier when she'd gone to Walgreens to get some Pepto-Bismol for Andy's upset stomach. "I'd call you Emily's guardian angel."

He oozed sincerity, and in spite of her reservations, Sis found herself smiling back.

"Tell me about yourself, Larry."

"Ah, the dreaded inquisition."

His smile was still in place, but Sis thought she'd seen a flash of irritation. Or maybe she was just looking for reasons to keep her trusting sister from racing to the altar with the wrong man.

"I'm blunt, Larry. Maybe too blunt. But I need to know my baby sister is going to be in good hands."

"I love your sister and make more than enough money to give her and Andy everything they want and need. Emily tells me you're a worrier, but rest assured, you have nothing to worry about, Sis."

Emily had walked up then and whisked him off to the kitchen to meet Beulah. It wasn't until they'd gone that Sis realized Larry Chastain hadn't told her one single thing about himself. She stood there looking down at the floor as if she expected to see a greasy spot where he'd been standing.

What was it about Larry that set her on edge? Sis hadn't been able to put her finger on the cause during that meeting two weeks ago, but driving along the beach road to pick up a brother who had received a Purple Heart, she wondered how Larry had managed to avoid the draft. The very idea of a draft dodger in a patriotic family where the men had served and sacrificed for their country made her want to snatch Emily up and run.

By the time Sis parked her Valiant at the bus station, she had to deep breathe in order to collect herself. It wouldn't do for her brother to see her in this shape. She adjusted the rear-view mirror in the off chance her reflection would show some magical transformation. Unfortunately, there she was—plain and chubby with a perpetual worry line creasing her forehead, and hair so curly it always looked like it had been styled by an eggbeater. Still, she tried to pat it into place, and even dug around in her purse to see if she could find a tube of lipstick, as if a little slash of red could turn back the clock. It had been two long years since she'd seen her brother, and she liked to think the sight of her would remind him of catching fireflies on summer nights and fishing off the pier and playing baseball in the backyard.

She turned up nothing in her purse but a wallet, a wad of tissue, two pieces of bubble gum and the stub of a pencil. Sighing, she pinched her cheeks, bit her lower lip to add some color and then put on a smile she hoped would make her look like a woman who had everything in the world she'd ever wanted.

As she stepped out of the car, Sis held out hope that her brother would be the one to turn her hornet's nest of worry into something manageable, a funny story they'd all laugh at a dozen years from now when Andy was graduating from high school and Emily was baking a celebration cake at Sweet Mama's. But Jim was leaning against the wall on his crutch, blowing smoke from a Lucky Strike into the humid evening air, his face as closed as a fist. "Jim. Oh, my God, Jim!"

"Sis," was all he said, and when she wrapped her arms around him, she understood that's all he could manage. His flesh had vanished from his bones, and with it the buoyant spirit that used to radiate from him in waves that made him almost hot to the touch.

Without another word, she led him to her car and headed back to the café. He stared at the Gulf as they barreled down Highway 90, the breeze from his rolled-down window blowing his yellow hair straight back from eyes turned as glassy and unseeing as the blue china plate Sweet Mama had picked to serve his welcome-home cake. Sis's hope flew right out the window. She imagined it sailing across the water like the favorite kite she'd loved and lost when she was six years old, before Emily and Jim were born, before their pink Victorian house across from the seawall became a place where a little girl had to grow up too fast.

"Jim, I know it must have been awful for you over there."

He didn't say a word, and who could blame him? Awful could hardly begin to describe it. The prosthetic leg he'd tossed into the car along with his duffel bag was a testament to the horrors he'd endured.

"If you want to talk about it, I'm a good listener."

"Give it a rest, Sis. I don't want to talk about it."

"That's okay. Maybe some other time."

That didn't seem likely. As she turned her attention to the radio, Sis tried to keep her despair from showing. She found a station where Elvis Presley was crooning "If I Can Dream."

Were there any dreams left in that car? Sis quickly switched to a station that wouldn't remind both of them of all they'd lost.

"You won't believe how Andy's grown. And Sweet Mama's still feisty as ever. She wanted to invite everybody in town to your homecoming, but I finally talked some sense into her. I thought it would be easier for you with just family."

Jim turned her way with a shut-down face full of sharp angles and shadows, then swiveled toward the window to stare at the water. Was he watching the whitecaps? Remembering Vietnam? Wishing on the moon?

"Do you want to hear about Emily's fiancé?"

"Not particularly."

"Well, you ought to. He's a jackass."

"They run the world."

"Not my world, not while I have breath."

Sis had been taking care of her family since she was fourteen and that awful accident took their parents. She didn't plan on stopping just because Emily was trying to outrun her past by racing toward the altar. And maybe that was Sis's fault. She'd always encouraged her baby sister to be the fairy princess in a fairy-tale world.

Sis took a sharp left in order to avoid Keesler Air Force Base. No sense giving Jim any reminders that the military had mowed the Blake family men down like ninepins, leaving only him behind to pick up the slack. Not that Sis held out any high hopes of that happening. A man who wouldn't even carry on a conversation about his family was as likely to see after their welfare as Sis was to have somebody stop her in the street and tell her she was beautiful.

Just look at the pair of them. She was an old sourpuss and Jim was still in the killing jungles somewhere on the other side of the world.

It was a pure relief to see the café, a fine, old building of moss-covered brick, reflecting the style of the Gulf Coast's Spanish history, shaded by a couple of hundred-year-old live oaks and lit up like a rocket ship on blast off. Christmas lights and silver tinsel circled the plate-glass windows where gold lettering proclaimed Sweet Mama's Café, and underneath in red was etched Home of the Famous Amen Cobbler!

Beyond the front window was Sweet Mama with her coronet of silver braids and a pearl brooch on her green linen dress, laughing at something Emily had said. That was a talent Emily had—making her grandmother laugh, making everybody around her smile. Everybody except Sis, who hadn't found much to smile about since she discovered she hated the idea of spending the rest of her life selling pies, Amen or otherwise.

The flush on Emily's cheeks could have been excitement or summer heat. With blond curls escaping from her pony-tail, she looked sixteen. A strap of her yellow sundress had slid off one shoulder, and the blue apron she still wore was dusted with flour. Even disheveled, Emily was beautiful.

Sis would never be beautiful, with or without a dusting of flour. She would never look sixteen, even if she could get her frizzy brown bob into a ponytail. She would never be the kind of woman men wanted to sweep off her feet.

Envy ambushed her, so unexpected she almost crashed her car into a live oak.

"Watch out!" Jim grabbed for the steering wheel, but Sis slapped his hands away.

"I've got it. I'm just excited, is all."

How could you envy the sister you'd dressed and fed and soothed at night with silly, made-up stories so she'd sleep with the lights off?

Perhaps it wasn't envy but longing fueled by the perspective of age. How could Sis have known at fourteen that once you set out on a path, it can take you so far from your dreams you'll end up at the age of thirty-four not even remembering who you once wanted to be?

She'd given up everything for her family, even her name. Beth. Nobody called her that anymore. Everybody just called her Sis, as if she were nothing more than the role she played.

The sign on the door of Sweet Mama's read Closed for a Private Party. There was nothing private about it, of course. Tomorrow, word would be all over town. Sweet Mama would tell the breakfast regulars, and Emily was too gentle to refuse details to anybody who asked. By ten o'clock, everybody in Biloxi would know that Sweet Mama had made Jim's favorite red velvet cake, and Emily had forgotten to take off her apron and Jim had refused to wear his leg.

There it lay on the backseat of Sis's Valiant, another piece of sand in her craw. What do you say to a brother just returning from the hell of Vietnam? Why don't you let me strap on your prosthetic leg so you'll look normal and Emily won't cry? Or do you just stand there with sand drifting into your sandals while Emily races out the front door, already crying before she gets close enough to hug her twin, the Gulf breeze blowing both of them sideways?

Maybe the Gulf was blowing all of them sideways, and had been for so long Sis didn't know what normal was anymore. She thought about a brother coming home broken and a sister smiling as she raced toward disaster. She thought about a life gone so far off track she didn't even remember the direction she'd been going.

Best not to think too far into the future, to simply put one sandy sandal in front of the other until she was standing in Sweet Mama's, surrounded by the smells of cake and pie and fried chicken and freshly cut tomatoes from Sweet Mama's prize crop, just standing there silent, gnawing on a chicken leg and watching over her brother and sister as she always had; watching as Emily laughed through her tears and Jim was engulfed by the ones who loved him best and would love him always, even if he never got his mind back from Vietnam and his leg out of Sis's car. "Aunt Sis! Aunt Sis!"

The TV perched on the edge of the serving bar was blaring wide-open. Andy sat so close he was crossing his eyes to see.

"C'mon over! They gonna land on the moon!"

For two cents Sis would get on that rocket ship with the astronauts. And she wouldn't care whether she found the moon or not. All she wanted was to be as far away from her current life as she could get.

Sweet Mama was relieved when Sis quit glaring over her fried chicken leg at What's His Name and walked over to join Andy at the TV. Why, from the look on her face you'd think What's His Name was a fly set to land on Jim's celebration cake and Sis was a flyswatter.

Larry Chastain. That was the name of Emily's new fiancé. Sweet Mama would write it down this very minute if she thought she could do it without getting caught. But Emily might see her and start worrying all over again about her for-getfulness. And Sis was bound to notice. That girl didn't miss a thing. And she wouldn't stop at calling Sweet Mama forgetful, either. She'd use the scary words senile and hardening of the arteries and dementia.

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The Oleander Sisters 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
rhonda1111RL More than 1 year ago
4 STARS This is not your everyday romance novel from Harlequin. It is a powerful novel in a lot of ways. Deals with strong woman characters. With abuse, single mothers, dreams, natural disaster, hurricane Camille. The setting for this book is 1969 in Biloxi, Mississippi. They watch man step onto the moon and it makes a little boy dream of building a rocket out of boxes and going to the moon. Andy is only five. He is darling and will still your heart. I love all the people helping him dream. Emily Blake got pregnant in high school. The father ran off to war instead of doing what is right. Now she is engaged to be married and her son will have a new father. She has taken over a lot of the baking and cooking at the café now. Beth "Sis" Blake is the oldest of the three children. After their parents were killed in a car accident they were raised by their grandma. Beth is a plain woman and never expects to get married. She is their taking care of her family. Jim comes home wounded from the war. Mentally and physically. He is Emily's twin. Sweet Mama owns a pie shop & café. Her husband left her to raise her own sons. Then she raised her grandchildren. Now she is forgetting things and trying to hide it. Beulah is her best friend for years. Her husband brought her home to be a maid before the depression. They have lots of secrets over the years. She loves the Blake family and will do anything for them. This book is full of drama, secrets, and love for each other as they go through trials in their lives. This is my first book I have read of Elaine Hussey but I would read another book from her based on this book. I was given this ebook to read by Net Galley and Harlequin. In return I agreed to give a honest review of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Buy this book. Outstanding story. Great author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would like a male black owl with green eyes
jeanmarie3 More than 1 year ago
Couldn't put it down!!  I read it in 2 days!  Thanks, Elaine Hussey, for another story of the Deep South with love, family, and intrigue.
ABrantley More than 1 year ago
This is the ultimate book to curl up with if you love Southern fiction. Elaine Hussy writes this book in such a way that she truly captures the feel of the South in the 1960s. Everything from the language to the descriptions draw you in and make the book impossible to put down. I highly recommend this book to fans of women's fiction.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Elaine Hussey has delivered a wonderful testimony to the strength of southern women across generations. This is a powerfull story that tells the tale of overcoming the devastation left behind from hurricanes and abuse. Shows the salvation of sisterhood and the strength of family bonds.
Pensacola-Reader More than 1 year ago
I began reading and did not want to put this book down.  The Oleander Sisters by Elaine Hussey is THAT good.  As usual, Hussey writes strong, vivid characters and relatable situations. The Southern women in this novel pull you in and make a connection as their story unfolds.  Love. Fear. Loyalty. Betrayal. They are all here.  Hurricane Camille made landfall on August 14, 1969. This August marks the 45th anniversary of the event.  Using this devastating storms to reinforce the intensity of the events occurring in this novel is incredibly well done. As someone who lives on the Florida Gulf Coast and who has experienced Ivan and Katrina, I can vouch for the ratcheting emotional effects of storms like these. I could absolutely relate the angst of these events to the horror of the abuse dealt with in this story.   The strength of family and the loyalty of friends is on display in The Oleander Sisters. I highly recommend this novel if you are looking for an emotional connection to characters and life stories. Enjoy! 
quaintinns More than 1 year ago
A special thank you to Harlequin MIRA and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Elaine Hussey’s THE OLEANDER SISTERS, is a heartfelt story—a book of hope and courage of women, and the strong bonds of sisterhood, set in the Deep South—one of triumph, over tragedy. The Blake family struggle takes place in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1969, in the midst of two historical events. Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, and the devastating hurricane Camille. THE OLEANDER SISTERS, a strong group of women Sis, Sweet Mama, Beulah, and Emily. Told in alternating perspectives from Sis, Emily and Sweet Mama. Emily and Jim, tragically lost their parents in a car accident when Sis was 14 years old. Now Jim is back from the Vietnam, with one leg facing his own demons. Emily is engaged to Larry and wants to provide her 5-yr. old son with a father. She makes poor choices and the sisterhood is there to support her. Sweet Mama is a colorful woman with a checkered past, eccentric with a strong voice. Sis, the strong one in the family wants to stop the wedding when they begin suspecting Larry’s abuse and violence. Both Sis and Emily work at their grandmother’s café named “Sweet Mama's Café along with her grandmother’s best friend Beulah handling the baking. As they work together trying to stop this madness, another storm is approaching. There are metaphors and takeaways from this heartwarming story— from strong family bond to helping one overcome abuse, to finding hope in the midst of heartache; as the town rallies together to help rebuild the town after the hurricane. A story of courage, love, sacrifice. A story of one small boy who never lost hope—building a ship to take them all to the moon, as everything else was being swept out into the Gulf—a symbol of hope. If you like southern women’s fiction, sipping tea, sisterhood, strong family bonds, and southern cooking—you will enjoy THE OLEANDER SISTERS.
lsneely More than 1 year ago
The Oleander Sisters by Elaine Hussey is like sitting down and devouring warm chocolate cake. It’s delicious to the last bite and you hate when you have to put the empty plate in the sink.  Four women are featured prominently in the book, and they are magnificent. First we get to know Beth Blake, the stalwart protector of her disjointed family, Emily Blake, the single mother of the delightful Andy, Sweet Mama, the grandmother who raised the girls after their parents died, and Beulah, who came to help when Sweet Mama was a young bride and became an integral member of the little group. Needless to say, Biloxi, MS, is hot in the summer. Humidity and heat are summer companions every year in this area. Beth, who is called Sis by everyone, is carrying heavy loads this summer. Emily is engaged to a man that Sis feels is deceitful in every way. But Emily, who has gone through the pain of a pregnancy at sixteen and raising her son alone, is thrilled to think she’ll have a normal family and Andy will have a father. Add to that, Sweet Mama’s is showing signs of memory loss and is desperate to keep her bossy son Steve from putting her in a nursing home. As with most Southern tales, food figures prominently in this story, especially Sweet Mama’s special Amen cobbler. With a sweet mixture of peaches and cherries, it’s baked every day at the café, and people travel long ways to enjoy a dish of it. When Sweet Mama’s husband deserted her and her two sons, she decided she’d use her skill with pastry to open a bakery. With Beulah’s help, that little bakery eventually became Sweet Mama’s Café, serving crispy fried chicken, fluffy mashed potatoes, and light-as-air biscuits along with Amen pie for dessert. Hussey has a wonderful way with her words that not only allow you to know the heart of the character, but to be away of the emotional impact of the environment on that character. This is her description of the drive to the café from the bus station for Sis and Jim. This is a book that took me through a wonderful ride of emotions. I fell in love with the Blake family just like I think you will as they moved through their daily struggles until they had to face an angry force much bigger and more ferocious than anything else coming at them¿hurricane Camille. That was another big event in 1969. Like I said, it was a heck of a year. In the end, of course, it’s always good to have family. I promise you’ll find yourself wanting to read this while sitting on the front porch enjoying tall glasses of sweet iced tea, just like Sweet Mama and Beulah do every day!