Everyone in Hendersonville, North Carolina, knows that nine-year-old Carrie Parker is a murderer, having shot and killed her vicious stepfather in order to save her mother's life. She is shunned in her town for being at the very least peculiar, but more likely crazy. Carrie wants more than anything for her mother to love her, and so she tries very hard not to get on Momma's nerves. She knows Momma hates it when she watches her, so she tries to only look at her secretly. For another thing, she recites, as her mother has taught her, that she never had a sister named Emma but instead made up an imaginary friend named Emma. There are times when Carrie almost believes that what her mother tells her is the truth: that she never had a sister, and if she talks about having one, she will end up in a mental institution.
"...a storytelling triumph about the meaning of family --- ultimately a wondrously uplifting tale of hope and redemption starring a main character who is quite simply unforgettable."
Now that Richard is dead, and either there is no Emma or Emma is gone, it's just Carrie and her mother. Momma blames Carrie for their lack of money, resenting her for eliminating the source of family income. They pack up all of their belongings into their ancient station wagon to make a new beginning away from Hendersonville. They've had a garage sale where townspeople paid way more than their pitiful things were worth. This kind of charity insults Momma, but they need the money for their new life.
As they prepare to leave, Carrie notices a series of miracles. The first one is when Momma invites her to sit in the front seat --- the first time she has ever ridden there. Miracle number two occurs when Momma actually pats Carrie's knee (Momma is never gentle with her). Even so, Carrie is not prepared for miracle number three: Momma actually smiles. These wondrous occurrences give Carrie hope that their new life might be a happy one. However, the car soon begins clanking and smoking before it dies for good. Momma's fleeting pleasant moments are now just memories. She is not happy as they carry their garbage bags full of belongings along the hot road. Momma begins haranguing Carrie, calling her a crazy murderer and shaking her. Luckily Momma's fingernails are short, so her attack isn't as painful as it normally is.
Eventually, they end up at the Loveless Hotel and Motor Lodge in Hartsville, North Carolina. Carrie is dazzled by their new home, even though the pool is empty, peeling and filled with garbage and the television will only turn off if the plug is pulled. Momma is soon involved with her old friend, Jim Beam, and a night job that often keeps her out until dawn. Carrie does not stay in their room, as Momma commands. She is hungry, stealing ketchup from a nearby fast food restaurant to make the catalog pages that form her meals more palatable. She could never guess that she will meet someone --- another young girl who is also missing a sister --- in that Wendy's who will impact her life, helping her solve the mysteries of her past.
WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SISTER is often a difficult read, with descriptions of violence and abuse that are even more terrible for being related in Carrie's matter-of-fact voice. However, this follow-up to Elizabeth Flock’s acclaimed 2005 novel, ME & EMMA, is also a storytelling triumph about the meaning of family --- ultimately a wondrously uplifting tale of hope and redemption starring a main character who is quite simply unforgettable.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on August 10, 2012
What Happened to My Sister