Secrets and the devastation that they can cause families are at the emotional core of Melissa Newman’s powerful and evocative debut novel Sister Blackberry. Her posse of strong female characters are both entrapped and redeemed through the revelations of long buried truths.
“When you grow up around women, you know that they all harbor secrets,” Newman said. “That was one of the inspirations for the story.”
The secrets in Sister Blackberry are much more than your garden variety women’s secrets. We aren’t talking about cheating spouses, petty crimes, or even aborted pregnancy. Viola Garland is covering up the identity of a child, a murder and, most fascinating of all, the ambiguous sexuality of her daughter.
The story opens in 1936 in Reyes County, Kentucky, when Viola is eighteen and pregnant. The events that unfold around the birth of her child will have far-reaching consequences to the present day. Viola is worried because her husband, Den, a miner, might not be at home when she goes into labor. Her friend and neighbor, Janie, is also pregnant, and the two women comfort each other despite Janie’s violent husband, Bick’s, disapproval of Viola.
In this passage right before the babies are born, Viola ruminates on her concern over Janie’s situation:
“She suspected that Bick would hit Janie when he found out she and Viola had been together. There weren’t as many bruises and marks since Janie had gotten pregnant, but there were still signs. Viola couldn’t figure out how someone as sweet as Janie could be married to a man who would hit her. And what about the baby? Would Bick hit the baby?”
Bick is a truly menacing character and provides a stark contrast to the many women that populate the book.
“Bick was well thought out,” Newman said. “I wanted to see how far he would go. What would push him? What was important to him? What would lead him to violence?”
Viola and Janie give birth on the same night. Viola, alone because Den is in the mine and there is no time for her to get help. Janie is attended by the narrow-minded charismatic leader of Bick’s evangelical church and his wife. Neither birth goes as planned. In a harrowing and dreamlike passage, the lives of all the characters are altered in unforeseen ways by the two births. The secrets begin.
“I dreamt this story like a movie,” Newman said. “This is something that really disturbed me. I dreamed the characters of Viola and (her daughter) Doris. I wrote an outline and then I did a lot of research…. I wrote it before Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex came out. It sat in a drawer for a long time.”
As Doris grows up, she has a secret that she doesn’t quite understand herself. Why don’t her genitals look like her sister Nadine’s? Why aren’t her breasts developing?
Ultimately, it is the jealousy between the sisters that reveals Doris’ secret in the most humiliating way possible. Stuck in small-town Kentucky in the 1950s, Doris feels that there is no other option but to leave.
“Relationships with sisters are very complex and competitive,” Newman said. “Add a boy and it’s like fire and kerosene coming together. I drew on something that happened with me and my sister. We both liked the same boy in high school. I thought about how cruel I was, wanting to humiliate her.”
Doris’ story of surviving as a runaway is, in many ways, the strongest part of the book. The scenes of her life in Cleveland don’t have nearly the drama that some of the earlier scenes contain, but Newman is really able to delve into her character. The writing is more assured, and several of the characters that Doris meets are quickly and adeptly developed. Doris emerges in this section as a stable and wise centerpiece to the novel. Against the odds, she finds her way in the world. In a way, Nadine has done her sister a favor by freeing her to live in the wider world.
However, Doris, like Newman herself, returns to her Kentucky home. Newman, who worked as a journalist throughout the Midwest, returned to her rural Kentucky roots eight years ago.
“Doris wanted to go home,” Newman said. “We spend the first half of our lives trying to get out and the second half trying to get back home. Doris had seen it and done it and was ready to come back.”
Nadine has a tougher time. The guilt of what she’s done to her sister will haunt her for the rest of her life. She will also pass down her feelings of inadequacy to her own daughters, blaming Doris for her misery.
“Nadine got what she wanted,” Newman said. “But it wasn’t really what she wanted. She just wanted to be like Doris. Once Doris was gone she didn’t really want Edwin (the boy they were fighting over). It caused her alcoholism and her miserable marriage.”
Newman does an excellent job in teasing out these plotlines in a subtle yet powerful way. The various revelations are well-paced and suspenseful. She shows us how guilt and lying can wear down a family. The lying is something that the 87-year old Viola cannot live with any longer. It is her desire to tell Nadine’s grown daughters the truth about the family that ultimately drives this tale.
Newman is at work on her second novel and believes that she’s learned a great deal from writing Sister Blackberry. Here’s hoping she’s still got a few secrets up her sleeve.
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