One man prompts two sisters to take divergent paths out of early-1900s Oklahoma.
Winter, 1917: Fifteen-year-old Elise leaves her one-room schoolhouse during a blizzard and attempts to ride a horse to town to research a saloon shooting she’s fixated on. She’s rescued by her older sister, Lorena, who’s used to Elise’s peculiar flights of fancy. But the brief, ill-fated trek has extensive consequences: Elise loses half her toes and the tip of her nose, and both sisters are drawn closer to their teacher, Gus, who’ll play a transforming role in both their lives. Parker’s sixth novel (All I Have in This World, 2014, etc.) is a familiar hardscrabble frontier tale (the title illness claimed the sisters’ two brothers), though it’s enlivened by Elise’s distracted, savantlike temperament, which allows her to memorize whole newspaper articles and predisposes her to impulsive horse rides and distracting reveries. (“Dreaming your dreamy dreams,” as Lorena puts it.) Lorena, more practical and studious, escapes the homestead for college, with Gus seemingly interested in marrying her. But with Lorena away, Gus soon falls for Elise instead, and the sisters split, Elise for Texas, Lorena for Wyoming. Moving the narrative through 1940, Parker’s novel isn’t as much about sisterhood as love, as the two struggle to reckon with their estrangement head-on; some of the novel’s most powerful sections are Elise’s letters to Lorena, addressed not directly to sis but to the horse she rode during the blizzard. The two women’s reconciliation is wan compared to the peculiarities that Parker introduces in the narrative, but the easygoing, sometimes-smirking nature of the prose (True Grit comes to mind) makes the novel a pleasant ride overall.
A frontier tale of sibling rivalry that could use more of its entertainingly otherworldly touches.