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The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters


The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

fitting, because this is an unusual book. Timothy Schaffert's debut
novel concerns the lives of two eccentric sisters who live in a
junk shop in rural Nebraska. The girls, Lily and Mabel Rollow,
appear to the reader as if reflected in a crazy fun house mirror,
all impossible angles and out-of-kilter features. Weighing in at
just 228 pages, the novel is nonetheless very dense, putting the
reader in touch with the thoughts, actions, and dreams of the girls
and a dozen other quirky characters. The characters are well drawn
and interesting, although so much happens to them that it is
difficult to say you get to know them.

Lily and Mabel are 19 and 21, respectively, and have had a load of
hardship thrown at them in their brief lives. Deserted both by
their father, through suicide, and their mother, by voluntary
abandonment, the young women grow up with their grandmother who
runs a junk shop outside of the small town of Bonnevilla, Nebraska.
At the start of the novel, Grandma has moved to Florida, leaving
Mabel and Lily to their own devices. The women, particularly Mabel,
are more like old souls than anxious adolescents, and Schaffert
draws Mabel with a particularly sharp pen. "A broken spring poked
at the back of Mabel's leg. It seemed to Mabel that, in such a car,
one would be inspired by the spirit of renegade youth and not be
scared of anything. But the only thing that affected Mabel was the
view out the window. The sun was setting at the end of the
desolation, casting its sharp glow across the miles of nothingness
before reaching a good place." Mabel alternately covets and
despises Lily's erstwhile boyfriend, the androgynous Jordan, one of
quite a cast of eccentric characters that people the novel.

Schaffert grew up on a Nebraska farm, although he certainly harbors
no sentimentality for rural America. His characters and episodes
veer wildly, and sometimes too heavily, into the grotesque: Mabel
remembers an incident where their mother hits a sandhill crane in
the road; Jordan attempts suicide so as to be forever important to
a former girlfriend; Lily hurls the vilest curses imaginable at
their mother; Mabel encounters the family of a drowned girl and
spontaneously lies that she was the recipient of the dead girl's
transplanted corneas; Mabel consults a severely brain damaged girl
who functions as something like the Oracle at Delphi. It is all a
bit heavy handed, and the dialogue at times seems clunky and out of
place. "'I ruined Mabel's birthday,' Lily said. 'She'll be lonely
when we're gone,' Jordan said. 'Mabel will be fine,' Lily said."
But then there are passages like this, with Jordan describing his
suicide attempt, "But hell, yea, I'm glad I didn't die. She was
kind of a toothy girl, really, and you know, she didn't really
dance as well as she thought she did." It's beautiful, exactly the
opposite of clunky.

It is no surprise that the more capricious Lily, with Jordan in
tow, sets off on a quest to find their mother, leaving Mabel to
mind the store. Lily finds her mother Fiona living in a desert
convent, helping tend a vineyard. Fiona's ambivalence at being
found spurs Lily to return home and make peace with Mabel.

Having grown up in Nebraska, although not the rural part, I take
particular interest in novels set in the state. I know, you're
thinking, "Exactly how many novels can be set in a state where
there are more cows than people?" There are more than you think. In
fact, the state has a fine literary tradition, and THE PHANTOM
LIMBS OF THE ROLLOW SISTERS makes an interesting, if offbeat,

Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran ( on January 22, 2011

The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters
by Timothy Schaffert

  • Publication Date: May 27, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Blue Hen
  • ISBN-10: 0399149007
  • ISBN-13: 9780399149009