The Oleander Sisters
The year is 1969. The winds of change blow throughout American society. No one is immune to the immense and turbulent history that is playing itself out on the news everyday. In Biloxi, a couple of other storms are brewing --- one called Hurricane Camille and the other called the Oleander sisters. In Elaine Hussey’s new novel, storms of all kinds threaten the sisters. Which one are they strong enough to put down?
Beth “Sis” Blake and Emily Blake are sisters. Sis is the overwhelmingly charitable and caring family guardian and caretaker. She carries all the family’s eons of secrets and the source of all their happiness with her as she selflessly puts all other desires and needs in front of her own. Emily is everybody’s sweetheart, a pretty girl with a personality to match and a five-year-old son named Andy in tow. She is due to marry someone she doesn’t love, a man named Larry Chastain, in order to set right the waywardness she had enacted in her past. As surely as Neil Armstrong put one foot on the moon, the Oleander sisters are in need of a breakthrough, a way to escape these ragged reputations and find a new life.
"Hussey’s characters have wonderful personalities, and they come through in their voices, actions and the world in which they live. She makes you feel as if you truly know these people, and their concerns become great concerns for you as well."
Sis is wise, too. She seems to be the only member of the large and attenuated Blake family who knows that Larry is not the be-all and end-all for Emily and Andy. With a mysterious past himself and a temper that rages like a hurricane at the most inopportune times, Larry is not a savior. It is up to Sis to find a way to make sure that everyone sees it as well and that Emily does not walk into a first-rate mistake upon marriage.
Since this is the South, there are a LOT of other people in the family, but two have particular issues that plague the sisters throughout their personal turmoils. Their brother Jim returns to Vietnam, sans one leg and losing what little sanity he seems to have left. And their Sweet Mama is losing what sanity she has as dementia sets in. The haze in which their beloved family members are wandering through their lives gives the girls yet another problem to worry about. As Hurricane Camille roars up the coast, becoming a category five hurricane, the Blake girls try to put their own demons aside and deal with keeping the family safe and sound in its less-than-honorable state.
I love good stories about big old Southern families, especially those set in the turbulent ’60s. Elaine Hussey clearly feels the same way and combines a personal story with a public trauma with ease. She even remarked about the combination in a recent interview: “I chose the summer of 1969 for THE OLEANDER SISTERS because those two events were perfect metaphors for my recurring theme of finding hope amidst heartbreak…. Catching moonlight on the tongue symbolizes discovering hope and making it part of who you are.” Readers looking for homespun wisdom and serious drama will not be disappointed with this story.
THE OLEANDER SISTERS arrives just as CNN’s documentary series “The Sixties” finishes up --- and it makes 1969 seem like the perfect time to set such a dramatic family tale. This really was one of those eras in which the crazy underpinnings of America rose to the surface, but, just the same, it was also the time during which a fantastic feat such as the moon landing found a way to ground and connect people as the stormy decade began to wear itself out. The sisters’ story serves as a perfect foreground for this historic and patriotic backdrop.
Hussey’s characters have wonderful personalities, and they come through in their voices, actions and the world in which they live. She makes you feel as if you truly know these people, and their concerns become great concerns for you as well. Worrying about the sisters gives you a reason to turn page after page of this Southern delight.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on August 8, 2014