(Reviewed by Pat Neuman NOV 16, 2006)
"“… I wouldn’t live a thousand lives, but a million to infinity, to live the life I’ve lived as me. I am Rose Darlen of Baldoon County. Beloved sister of Ruby. The world’s oldest surviving craniopagus twins. Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash were right. How lucky Ruby and I have been to be ‘The Girls.’"
In spite of reading some outstanding reviews of this novel and being a big admirer of Lori Lansens’ previous book, Rush Home Road, I admit that I had some misgivings about reading The Girls – primarily due to the subject matter. How could the average person relate to an autobiography of conjoined twins? The concept seemed depressing – and besides – how much of a “real” life could they have led?
I was wrong on so many counts. Lansens has not sensationalized their story, but treated every aspect with sensitivity and dignity, providing only enough of the details to understand both the challenges and solutions “the girls” achieved in their lives. It was difficult to put this book down, but not out of any morbid fascination with their circumstances, rather with eager anticipation to learn their reactions to situations in their lives. The sadness of some of the subject matter is told with a restrained but tender poignancy and did not prevent its over-all effect of being uplifting.
Lovey Darlen was a nurse on duty the night that a mysterious young stranger delivered her twin daughters who were joined at the head. Lovey bonded with the twins immediately and rode with them in the ambulance when they were rushed to a larger hospital. There, she soon felt a compelling need to guard them from everyone, including the Dr. who referred to Ruby as “the parasitic one” and considered “removing” her to enable Rose to have a more normal life. So she remained with them for weeks until they were ready to be released. In the mean time, their mother disappeared and Lovey convinced her husband, the girls beloved “Uncle Stash,” that they should adopt the girls, in spite of the fact that they were both already in their fifties.
The obvious physical problems were not the worst that they had to overcome. In order to give them as much privacy as possible, the Darlen family moved outside of the small town of Leaford, Canada (Lansens’ home town). Lovey owned a decrepit old farmhouse, which she had long-ago inherited from her family. There, she helped Rose and Ruby ignore or overcome all of the predictions about their limitations. Her wonderful down-to-earth attitude prevented the girls’ self-pity and kept them from feeling like freaks. They eventually moved to town, attended public schools and shared a job at the local library.
Lansens did a lot of unusual and fascinating research, and it shows. She deliberately avoided interviewing any conjoined twins for this novel because (as she explained in interviews) she “… felt a responsibility to stay away from learning too much about any living conjoined twins so there would be no risk of confusing fact with fiction and no fear of exploiting any living person.” However, she didn’t need to research the sense of connection because “… during the writing of Rose and Ruby’s story, … I had an intense physical attachment to my children. It seemed as though I had a child attached to my hip, my breast, or my lap at all times. I thought a great deal about the nature of connection and intimacy and the way people share their lives. My deep connection to my children was a jumping off place for the writing of The Girls.” And “…I was attached to them. I was nursing, co-sleeping. I was never for a second alone."
"Then one night, my four-year-old son was sitting beside me at the table and he put his cheek right next to mine. We were side by side, cheek to cheek, facing the same direction. And he said, ‘Sometimes, Mummy, I wish we could be glued together like this.’ He couldn't have had any idea… what I'd been thinking about. Then he said, "But that way I would never be able to see your eyes. See?’” From this concept grew many of the details of the problems and solutions encountered in this novel, such as mirrors around the house so that the girls could see each other, etc.
As the girls develop their own distinct personalities and very separate interests, they learn how to transcend severe limitations and accommodate each other. Rose is physically much larger and stronger than Ruby and is interested in baseball and literature. Ruby is mostly interested in the Neutral Indians and their many artifacts that she finds on the farm. She was born with two club feet and is so small that Rose carries her on her hip. They grow up as remarkably self-aware and self-sufficient individuals.
As they approach their record-breaking 30th birthday, a medical diagnosis prompts Rose to follow through on her long considered autobiography. Her literary aspirations yield such eloquent expression as: "Words leak from my brain. Seep out my ear. Burble from my crooked mouth. Splash on my shirt. Trickle into my keyboard. Pool on my warped parquet floor. At least they're not gushing from my heart.....I catch the words as they fall. My hands smell. And the place is a wreck. From all the spilled words." She also invites Ruby to contribute her input which mostly takes the form of a journal addressed to a friend. They agree not to discuss what they each are writing, but will read it together when they are finished.
This is the area where Lansens really shines. Using beautiful, insightful but succinct prose, she not only manages to produce one incredibly authentic voice, but two! Even though the book uses a different font for each sister’s input, the differences in their perspectives make it astonishingly easy to know which one is writing the chapter. The deft way their versions of each story overlap and unfurl manages to sketch a comprehensive view of their lives in a fairly concise manner. Their lives are far more interesting than I would have imagined. Their writing reveals thoughts that (as well as they must know each other,) they may not have imagined. Without being maudlin, they both reveal the strength of their individual characters when talking in an honest but restrained manner about some very painful things and the people that they have loved.
Lori Lansens has a true genius for lovingly revealing strength of character in her writing. This is a book that deeply affected me and has lingered in my mind. I plan to savor it for a while and then read it again. I think you will too.
- Amazon readers rating: from 40 reviews
"Rush Home Road"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark May 22, 2002)
"There were some days when there was no peace to be had and what you thought might happen didn't and what you never dreamed of did. Addy knew this would be one of those days. She shook a cigarette from her package and lit it while she wondered what to do."The next day she's still considering returning the girl to her mother. But then she finds that Sharla's mother, the trashy white woman Collette Depuis, has emptied her trailer and left Lakeview with her boyfriend in the middle of the night. It's fairly certain that her very own mother has abandoned Sharla. Addy now understands what the one-more-thing is that her long-dead brother Leam says she must take care of before it is her time to go. As for Sharla, she is happy to live with "Mum Addy."
Addy is a "colored" lady or at least that is what she called herself before she learned that she should call herself black with pride instead. Although she's lived on the mud lane of the Lakeview trailer park, which is located twenty miles outside of Chatham for the last twenty years, it is not where she is from originally. She grew up in Rusholme, Ontario, near Chatham. Chatham was the terminus for the Underground Railroad and Rusholme is a special place since mostly colored families, fugitive slaves from the United States, settled it. Thus it was an ideal town to grow up colored and she and her brother Leam were two very happy children, never fighting like other brothers and sisters. Addy has pleasant memories of learning to sew and cook from her mother starting at an age far younger than Sharla. By the time Addy and Leam were teenagers, there was no doubt who each would end up marrying - Leam was to end up with the beautiful Birdie Brown and Addy was to marry Chester Monk who at sixteen was already bigger than most men. She knows that Chester doesn't mind her stick out ears and hood eyes that she unfortunately inherited from her daddy. Life in Rusholme was very straight forward until the day of Strawberry Sunday when the unthinkable happens and that summer fifteen-year-old Addy Shadd finds herself locked out of her family home and forced to walk away from the town. It is no wonder that taking care of the abandoned Sharla brings back a lifetime of memories for Addy until she can't tell the difference between night dreams and day dreams, except that with a night dream she knows where she will wake up.
From the moment she realizes that Sharla is her responsibility, Addy feels a rush of love for the child and treats her like her own. Addy offers Sharla trust and love as well as discipline and begins to straighten out the damage caused by Collette's neglect. Miraculously, in a very short time Sharla's pudgy body slims out with the good food she is fed; she learns manners and the proper way to speak; and, she learns not to steal or curse. Basically Sharla's a good kid by the time she starts first grade. But, it's obvious that the child comes from biracial parents even though Collette never told Sharla that her daddy was a black man. So Addy has to help Sharla with this as well.
Though Addy has been guided by and has held many conversations with the long-dead Leam throughout the years, she suspects that her talks are becoming more frequent and believes it signals that her time is near. She worries who will take care of Sharla when she's gone and tries to figure out a rightful guardian. And as always, she hears the words like a commandment "Rush Home, Addy Shadd. Thou shalt rush home." But Rusholme is a place she visits only in memories and has not set foot in since leaving over a half-century earlier.
Moving easily from present to past and back again, we learn the interesting story of Addy Shadd's life - the childhood in protected Rusholme, and the good people who help her through the years especially in the first years that she finds herself on her own. And as she hints in the beginning we find out whom she married and about her daughter nicknamed "Chick." We bear her heartbreaks and all the good in between. The mystery of Addy's life moves us along, demanding us to keep reading. Mixed into the telling is a bit of magical realism such as all of her talking to the dead and her belief in nature's messages for example when she notes that the sun and the moon being out at the same time will signal change. All of this makes for a pleasurable read, and even during the worst of the tragedies, Addy's strength of character makes it bearable for us, the reader.
That we learn a little bit about Canada's role in the antislavery movement and the prohibition years is something else that I really like about this novel. One thing I learned during the week after 9-11 is how much we ignore anything that happens north of the border. We tend to believe US history happens on our land only and stops at the border. On 9-11, when all the planes were suddenly grounded, many of the planes were diverted to Canada. And similar to the generosity of the Underground Railroad days, people in various Canadian towns willingly opened their homes to the grounded travelers because there weren't enough hotels. I know this because a few of my coworkers were recent college grads from Nova Scotia and were reporting on events at home. I found this so fascinating that I thought for sure that it would be one of the news stories. If it was I didn't hear about it, but my coworkers didn't think that was unusual. So I think it is important that Rush Home Road gently nudges us to discover the Canadian involvement in some of these key U.S. historical events.
This is one of these books that is hard to put down because you really do want to know more. It is also very honest in the way that it deals with the way children behave especially when they lack the guidance by a loving and unselfish adult. Addy is very consistent in the way she cares and deals with young children, even the ones she is not all that fond of. It is clear that Addy believes in nurture over nature when determining the fate and traits a child will bring into adulthood. And without the other half of this interesting pair, Sharla, this would only be half the story that it is. Sharla is a wonderful child even when she is at her worst. Author Lori Lansens fully develops these characters.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a strong novel that tells a story of people in a time and place. Who knows if Oprah would have chosen this novel for her book club, but I'd recommend this novel as an "Oprah-like" meaning that those who like the Oprah novels, will also probably enjoy this one as well. Hopefully it will be discovered by a wider audience.
- Amazon readers rating: from 26 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Virago interview with Lori Lansens
- BookClubs.ca interview with Lori Lansens
- Canadian Living.com interview with Lori Lansens
- The BookHaven review of Rush Home Road
- NOW Magazine interview/review of The Girls
- Guardian Unlimited review of The Girls
- OnceWritten review of The Girls
- Blogcritics Magazine review of The Girls
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About the Author:
Lori Lansens was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario.
She has written several films including South of Wawa, Marine Life and Wolf Girl. She wrote her first novel, Rush Home Road, while pregnant with her first son (finishing just a week before he was born), and her second novel, while nursing a second child.
She lived in Toronto for 22 years and recently moved to California with her director husband, Milan Cheylov and their two young children.