LHJ Book Club discussion questions: The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen
As part of the Ladies Home Journal Book Club, we are tackling the book club questions. Let’s just say that the questions are insightful and really make you ponder your opinions, thoughts and perceptions of the book. For all of our posts on this book click here.
The Bird Sisters is set in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a small farming community by the Wisconsin River. Spring Green seems to be distinct in nearly every way from Deadwater, Minnesota, which is where Cousin Bett has grown up. How does each location shape the story, each community, and our characters? Can you imagine Milly and Twiss in Deadwater? How do the places we live shape us?
Nancy – Deadwater sounds about as inviting as its name – Bett called it “officially irrelevant” and made up wild stories about the town and its inhabitants; stories that thrilled and fascinated Twiss but repelled Milly. Spring Green was as bucolic as it sounds, a lush farming community that prospered. Twiss would have loved the adventure of staying in Deadwater; Milly would have hated it.
Sarah – I think Bett came from death (Deadwater) and tried to live life fully -a bit too fully in terms of the affair with Milly and Twiss’s dad. I think Milly and Twiss came from a theoretical “always green” kind of life-at least it must have looked like that to Bett -as they had both parents, enough to eat and a decent sized house. Also their father was always (in his head after he lost his job) on the greens of a golf course. The sisters’ also never married, making them “green” virgins perpetually. However, it seems like they too were living in a type of Deadwood created by their mother and her bitterness. Overall, all three girls wanted to escape their hometowns, but only Bett succeeded in doing so, mostly through her cousins sacrificing their own plans.
Stacy – Locations, places (settings) shape everyone’s life, including novel characters. For example, if you grow up in the city, it’s more likely you’ll be exposed to a variety of arts, nationalities, have several dining choices, etc. In contrast, growing up rurally your choices are typically limited. Not to mention that every community has customs, idiosyncrasies, environment factors etc. that are influential. Just like Nancy and Sarah pointed out, Deadwater and Spring Green couldn’t be more different. The girls from these cities were in part, a product of where they came from.
The novel is primarily set during the late 1940s, when the pace of life was a little bit slower than it is today. There seems to be a pervasive cultural nostalgia and a renaissance with regard to skills and cultural mores from the recent past (for example, folks learning how to can vegetables, a love of vintage clothing, etc.). Why do you think this is?
Nancy – My goodness, everything is rosy the further away you get from it. People always are looking for the easier, simpler times. As a society, people tend to romanticize the happier aspects and gloss over the ugly parts. But humanity is made up of people who are complicated in any time period.
Sarah – I think Nancy rocked this question- no more to add!
Stacy – Nancy, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Memories play such a powerful role in Milly and Twiss’s lives because, in many ways, their lives were arrested while both were teenagers. Can they ever be at peace? Is there always time for a fresh start?
Nancy – I think they may not be at peace, but they have learned to live with it. They both have regrets, and I think that if they had wanted a fresh start they would have done it long ago. Why didn’t Milly try to find love again (or at least another suitor), or Twiss leave after their parents died? I believe Milly finally found peace by forgiving and letting go of the past when Asa puts the note in her soaps, saying I know why you did it, she swings the club just like him.
Sarah – I think the fact that both characters are reliving their memories to become at peace with their decisions (I remain bitter on their behalf, however). Although frustrated by the woman who accuses Milly of ignorance because of her lack of children, Milly- and also Twiss -both seem to take satisfaction in taking care of broken birds and one another. I think that it is too late for a fresh start, but they are at peace by the end of the novel.
Stacy – It’s never too late for peace, but like Sarah and Nancy said, Twiss and Milly have learned to live with their decisions. If Milly and Twiss want a fresh start, I suggest online dating. I’m not saying love is the answer, but it would provide new and exciting experiences for them, something out of their normal.
Milly and Twiss will do anything and everything for each other in the novel, but they won’t talk openly about all that has happened to them over the course of their lives — especially events in their youth. Why is it so difficult for them? After so many years together, do you think that each knows of the other’s disappointments, vulnerabilities, and heartbreaks without having to explicitly say it? Or do you think that even after all this time the two do not know each other as well as they think?
Nancy – I think part of it may have been the era they grew up in. People just didn’t talk openly about sexual issues – infidelity, homosexuality, out of wedlock pregnancy – all had a terrible social stigma that made the people involved cover it up. Even though they may think they know how the other feels, it’s tacitly understood they won’t talk about it, and they are too stubborn to bring it up – even though talking about it could begin a new chapter in their lives. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other – on the contrary, they love each other enough that they won’t embarrass the other by talking about it.
Sarah – I agree with Nancy, but also feel that bringing up the ngative aspects of their lives would just bring them down, and they are clinging to the few strings of happiness daily life brings them. To bring up old wounds with one another would just make the pain that much worse.
Money is a constant source of tension for Milly and Twiss’s parents in the novel, but in the beginning of their relationship, their mother thought that her dreams would come true without her family’s money, and their father thought that his dreams would come true through his proximity to money at the country club. How were they right and how were they wrong? Money, and lack of it, is also a source of conflict between other characters (for example, Father Rice steals the entire meager collection from the church and Mr. Peterson pays for Bett’s medical care). How does money solve problems in the novel as well as create them?
Nancy – Ahhh, money, the root cause of many a failed marriage. Maisie believed love would compensate for the lack of money.
Stacy – While I think money was an issue in Maisie’s marriage, the real problem was her husband’s selfishness. Love can conquer all, but that love can only conquer all if both parties are fully committed and act selflessly.
Sarah – I think the need for money overtakes the sense of love that characters have for one another. Milly and Twiss’s parents (as did their aunt and uncle) believed that their love would overcome financial worries. However, it seemed to drive Milly and Twiss’s mother and aunt away from their husbands; it caused the sisters to become bitter because their husbands could not provide the type of life they were accustomed to and learning how to function without such money was a hardship neither sister ever got over. I think Mr. Peterson is able to solve Bett’s medical problems through paying for her medical care -but also drives her away from the sisters in the process.
Cousin Bettie — Bett — comes down from Deadwater, Minnesota, to stay with Milly and Twiss for the summer and in doing so changes the dynamics of their family. Bett grows close to each of the sisters in very different ways. How would the family have changed if not for Bett? In other words, do you think that the changes were the result of Bett’s particular personality? Or do you think that she was just in
the right place at the right time to be seen as a catalyst?
Nancy – I think the family would have imploded even if Bett had not come for the summer, but it would have been much later rather than sooner. While Bett was in the right place at the right time to alter the family, I do think Bett’s personality was partly responsible for the problems. She was plain and sickly, and worried she’d never find a better life. Bett behaved in a sometimes reckless manner – plunging her arms into a bee-filled sand pile, for example. Afterwards, Millie thinks “…she couldn’t find a polite way to explain what she’d seen: a person so untouched by fear she was certain something terrible had happened to Cousin Bettie, or would.”
Stacy – I truly believe Bett was a catalyst. Her visit was at a pivotal time, coupled with her personality, the perfect formula was established for the life changing summer.
Sarah – I think Bett brings out Twiss’s homosexuality and Milly’s fears, but without Bett, these would have been there, just not as exposed. It is Bett’s affair with her father, subsequent pregnancy and Milly’s sacrifice of Asa for Bett that brings about the real change-not Bett’s personality itself.
Both Milly and Twiss sacrifice their personal dreams for, they think, the betterment of the other. When is personal sacrifice for the sake of the larger goal noble and valiant? At what point is it foolish? Do you think that they make the right choices? How do you think Bett feels about her choices? What do you think she was trying to tell Milly by sending her the book?
Nancy – Oh man, do I want to give Bett an earful. Looking at the situation from my modern perspective, I definitely have a different opinion than Milly and Twiss would about sacrificing my happiness for the sake of my family’s reputation. However, even looking at it from their perspective, I think Milly could have worked things out without losing her chance at happiness and a family. Why couldn’t Bett go back to Deadwater to have the baby? Or go to a home for unwed mothers and give it up for adoption? Why couldn’t Milly have taken Twiss with her if she got married? Bett may have felt guilty, but not guilty enough to not marry Asa.
Sarah – I TOTALLY agree with Nancy. The most frustrating aspect of the book for me was how Milly and Twiss just seemed to roll over and let Bett walk all over them. However, I also tend to be a proactive woman in an age that allows me to do so; I find their choices valiant and foolish simultaneously.
Overall, I think Bett does feel guilty-but allowed Milly to make the sacrifice for her (just as she let Mr. Peterson pay for all her medical treatment). It is like Bett is the reverse of her mother and aunt-she moves up from poverty to wealth because of who she chooses to marry (and Milly kindly and stupidly sacrificed that for her).
Milly and Twiss love their parents deeply, but they don’t know quite how to forgive them. How do you think their lives might change if they were able to forgive them? Are they able to forgive Bett and Asa?
Sarah – I think it is not so much about forgiving their parents and Bett and Asa but being comfortable with who they are. I think the book is ultimately about both of them learning to accept the decisions they made and move on; but if they had done so early on, they could have had more fulfilling lives.
Stacy – They’ve never truly forgiven their parents, because their parents never forgave each other. As well, forgiveness was never doled out to Bett and Asa. Forgiveness is a powerful act, its bondage breaking. Like Sarah said, Twiss and Milly accepted everyone transgressions but had they actually forgiven them they could have moved on and had more fulfilling lives.
Asa, Mr. Peterson, and Joe all seem to make significant life choices based on snap judgments. How has this impulsive streak served them well? How has it hurt them? If Asa truly loved Milly as he seemed to, how could he so quickly abandon her? Do you think he understood at the time what Milly was asking of him? And by asking it, do you think she was asking too much of someone she loved?
Sarah – I don’t think Asa truly loved Milly or he would not have abandoned her for Bett without a fight. I think Milly too made a snap decision by sacrificing her love for Asa for her cousin -which clearly does not serve her well. I don’t think snap decisions are shown in a positive light-but really none of the characters make good choices-whether thought through or made quickly.
Throughout the novel, Twiss and Father Rice exchange letters. In these letters, Twiss often reveals her secret feelings. Father Rice, in turn, reveals his. In the age of the Internet, have we lost the intimacy that can be found in this old-fashioned form of correspondence, the traditional letter? How do we choose to share what we do when it’s by letter, e-mail, text, Twitter, Facebook update, blog post, or telephone? When was the last time you handwrote a letter?
Nancy – I dunno, I think we can still be profound and meaningful and intimate even when limited to 140 characters…LOL. I still write letters to people, I just send them electronically instead of in an envelope with a stamp. But I handwrite thank you notes and birthday cards, because that is just the way you do it.
Sarah - I think e-mails can be just as intimate as letters-they just get delivered faster. I do write letters to people-but I think I am more communicative in an email because my feeling and thoughts can be communicated faster through typing than writing.