We are a species enraptured with flight. Six hundred years ago, DaVinci drew plans for mechanical wings, his ornithopter, the inception of a wish designed. We have cast ourselves at the sky with increasing determination even since, from the Wright Brothers, to Kennedy’s challenge hurled at the moon, to the invention of biofeuls for commercial jets.
In The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen writes from within the heart of these aspirations. Her main characters, Milly and Twiss, seem at first glance to have spent a lifetime of quietude on the edges of a changing world. Milly still climbs down the cellar stairs for jars of ancient pickles while the rest of the world flies by in a flash of grocery-store coolers and pre-packaged futures. Milly and Twiss are the bird sisters, two little old ladies known for the endearing quirk of patching up injured birds. But when the past comes switch-tailing home, bisecting the present in all its illusive simplicity, Milly and Twiss turn out to be much, much more than a single glance allows.
Surrounded by the misplaced dreams and broken faith of those around them, the childhood versions of Milly and Twiss walk the intersection of character and fate. With a light, deft hand, Rasmussen asks if we are hampered by the dreams we choose and relinquish, or if we are, in the end, artists of the lives we lead. Do we make our lives, or do our lives make us? She offers up no easy answers, and, in the end, while the solutions are far from irrelevant, a larger question shadows them all: How do we survive the detritus of character and life when we find ourselves with an injured wing, in a swift, plummeting fall.
Rasmussen balances these questions and the characters who invoke them along a spectrum strung between the suffocation of drowning and the freedom of flight. As a toddler, Twiss rides her father’s shoulders, pretending to fly. As a teen, she draws happiness in the shape of a flock of birds, in their perfect, inimitable freedom. On the flip side, Milly holds a two-hundred-and-fifty-million-year-old fish fossil in her palm and wonders at its fate: “Fish were supposed to be at home in the water. Could they also drown there too?” (131). The question of whether or not characters — Milly, Twiss, and those around them — can be destroyed by what they most love is central to the novel’s juxtaposed metaphors of flight and drowning. In such a world of contrasts and conflations, it is no wonder that the dead don’t stay quiet, that the past doesn’t stay gone, that who you are and who you were are knotted strands within the same spun cloth.
In the end, I loved The Bird Sisters for its brilliant paradoxes, its rich complexity of character. It is filled with a feather-light density, with characters whose wrong choices end up being just right — with the maddening and joyous entanglements of a full measure of life. Late in life, Twiss understands that, “A bird’s wing, though it contained several distinct bones, functioned as though it contained only one. You couldn’t fiddle with even the tiniest bone without repercussions in the larger ones” (143). There is nothing out of place in Rasmussen’s debut novel. When you finish spending time with Milly and Twiss, you will no longer wonder if humans can fly. Instead, you’ll question how it is that you yourself ever forgot the spread of wings, the pull of an updraft, the miracle of soaring.