When her grandmother passed away, Rebecca Rasmussen
received a remarkable gift—the journals her grandmother had kept for more than four decades. Knowing they held a treasure trove of story possibilities, Rasmussen spun her grandmother and great-aunt's lives into a debut novel, The Bird Sisters
. In the book, two elderly spinsters named Milly and Twiss live together in an old house in rural Wisconsin where they are known for nursing injured birds back to health. The tale also alternates with scenes from the fateful summer of 1947, when certain events fractured their family and set the course of their life together.
Rasmussen shares photographs with Goodreads that inspired her storytelling.
The author's grandmother and great-aunt.
Goodreads: Why did your grandmother and great-aunt, Kathryn and Virginia, inspire these two sister characters, Milly and Twiss?Rebecca Rasmussen
: For several years after my grandmother passed away, I kept trying to figure out how to create a story that honored her, based on the journals she kept over a 40-year period. There was a lot of unhappiness in her journals, a lot of wishing her childhood had been different. Her parents passed away within a year of each other when she was a teenager, and she was constantly torn between making martyrs out of them and seeing them as real people capable of the grave mistakes each of them made. Once I allowed my characters to take their own breaths, I fell in love with them—Twiss for her adventurous spirit, and Milly for her family-bound one. The sisters in the novel are different from my grandmother and her sister in that they cling to each other when the going gets rough. If there is a reckoning in the novel, it's that while familial love can harm you, it can also save you.GR: Milly and Twiss are heavily influenced by the unhappiness of their parents' marriage in the novel. It sounds like your grandmother was equally affected by her parents' "grave mistakes." Can you tell us a bit more about that?RR
: After I read my grandmother's journals and learned about her parents' story, I found a picture of them at a county fair when they were very young. In it, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother are standing under a cardboard moon, looking at each other with a kind of uncontained love that is rare for photographs of that time. I kept measuring their expressions against the story my grandmother had told me. I kept wondering: Where did that love go?
The older I get, the more I am tuned in to the sacrifices—large and small—that people make daily for the good of their husbands and wives, their children and grandchildren, and even the animals they love. I am drawn to the idea of sacrifice because it often goes against our instincts, and because it can be one of the most beautiful things in the world, and yet its consequences can be devastating to have to survive.
An injured goldfinch is brought to the sisters in the opening scene of the novel (photo by Leslie Morrison).
GR: The sisters share an affection for birds, and Twiss is an expert at healing bird injuries. Are you an avid bird watcher or bird lover?RR
: Once, when I was a girl, a robin flew into our sliding glass door while we were watching television. My mother opened the door and scooped up that sweet little bird, made a bed out of warm towels, got my brother and me into the car, and drove across town to the "Bird Lady's" house. I don't know if that robin lived or not, but for a long time I wondered about him and about the lady who made a life out of saving birds. Probably every town has a "Bird Lady," and, sadly, in every town birds fly into windows and windshields. Sometimes people do something about it. Sometimes they don't. I think what you do when you encounter an injured bird (or animal) says a lot about who you are. I am a person who gathers up warm towels like my mother. In the mornings I like to watch the little finches in our oak tree. I marvel at how clever they can be. How quick-footed. How zippy. To me, the poet Mary Oliver
says it best about a little injured gull she and her partner tried to rescue. "Bird was like that...Startling. Elegant. Alive."