“The Sisters of Glass Ferry,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Kim Michele Richardson (photo by Andrew Eccles)

Reviewed by Philip K. Jason

This spellbinding new novel by the author of Liar’s Bench and GodPretty in the Tobacco Field powerfully blends teenage angst, a rich portrait of the American South, the blessings and curses of twinship, and the inevitably destructive nature of secrets. Ms. Richardson provides rich dosses of sensory imagery, emotional stress, and moral upheaval in the small, rural town of Glass Ferry, Kentucky. This is a town whose residents are at once desirous and fearful of leaving. It’s in their blood, and their blood is in it.

Just as Liar’s Bench links two periods of a town’s history, shuttling between them, much of The Sisters of Glass Ferry oscillates between the years 1952 and 1972, though there is much that extends into later decades. The title’s sisters, Patsy and Flannery, are non-identical twins. While chapters alternate between these temporal settings, they also alternate between the twins as centers of consciousness. Thus, Patsy and Flannery are defined against one another as well as in terms of their relationships with their parents and other characters in the novel.

Patsy, eight minutes older than Flannery, is clearly the mother’s favorite, both for her status as the oldest and her good looks. From the beginning, Flannery learned to defer to her twin – and most of the time she resented it. Their father taught both girls to handle firearms, but he also taught Flannery some of his whisky-making secrets. In a way, he treated her like the boy in the family. (Two infant sons had not survived.)

We meet the sisters as teenagers: Flannery the more subdued and dependable one; Patsy the more impulsive and popular. Flannery doesn’t get to go to the prom; Patsy meets what remains for a while a cloudy fate, her anticipated success as the belle of the ball transformed into tragedy. Her date’s older brother Hollis assaults her; then Patsy and her boyfriend Danny disappear. The girls’ parents are crushed, particularly the mother. She continues to hold birthday parties for her twins, convincing herself that there is a possibility of Patsy showing up. Mrs. Butler’s decline is not remedied by Flannery’s attempts to console her.

Flannery escapes to college and becomes a schoolteacher in Louisville. It comes as no surprise that she marries a controlling, abusive husband. How deftly Ms. Richardson handles this material is a most pleasant surprise, though the details are quite ugly.

The truth about what happened on the fateful day of the prom is hinted at throughout the novel. And it is eventually revealed. What happens in between is the unfolding of twenty years of Flannery’s life without Patsy and without a functional parent. Her fabled whiskey-producing father dies, destroyed by diabetes.

A discovery is made in 1972 that brings some of the novel’s open questions to resolution. However, questions regarding Flannery’s future will continue to keep readers hooked, leading them to a surprising, satisfying conclusion. Along the way, Flannery needs to confront Hollis, who is now Glass Ferry’s sheriff, succeeding his father.

Kim Michele Richardson explores the corrosive nature of secrets and the lies that sustain them with penetrating insight and admirable skill. She makes readers feel the opposing pressures of the urge to reveal and the fear of revealing. She portrays the cruelty of local gossips who think the worst once rumors are started and can’t keep themselves from adding to the social destruction of their neighbors.

The story, in many ways, is not uplifting. It focuses on cruelty and pain. It exhibits pettiness and extreme self-interest. However, these unhappy realities are balanced by attention to resilience and perseverance, as well as by some measure of sacrifice and courage.

Ms. Richardson’s strength is her ability to put readers in the scene and into the characters’ feelings. Her evocation of the sensory world is astonishing, as is her handling of the intangible aspects of environment: values, prejudices, and aspirations. She conjures a world that seems at once vividly present and broodingly haunted.

Like a fine Kentucky bourbon, it takes a bit of getting used to, but then you’re hooked.

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