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Sisterland    by Linda Newbery order for
by Linda Newbery
Order:  USA  Can
Laurel Leaf, 2006 (2003)
* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Linda Newbery begins the multi-layered, character-driven Sisterland with the Craig family visiting Alsace, France, where parents Rose and Gavin honeymooned. It may be the last time they will all vacation together. The two sisters have different personalities and temperaments - tantrum-uninhibited Zoe makes the A grades effortlessly, while Hilly had to keep her 'nose to the grindstone'.

The Craig family become caretakers of Heidigran, moving her from her house in Banbury into their Northampton household. Alzheimer's has been diagnosed, and will get worse but in an uncertain timeframe. To give Heidigran a room, Hilly moves into the loft room with Zoe - not a popular undertaking, especially with Zoe, who is running with a rough crowd of boys. Hilly's best friend Reuben Jones, is in lurve with Saeed (Hilly is fully accepting of her friend's homosexuality). She is patient and understanding of Gran's illness, but wants so much to know more about her grandmother's past and that of her great-grandparents. No photos are available, and when Hilly did a taped family-research conversation with Heidigran (after granddad's death and before the onset of Alzheimer's), her answers were short and evasive.

Heidigran was born Sarah Reubens in Cologne (Koln), Germany, but shipped off by her parents to England via Holland's Kindertransport during World War II. Her angry memories are of her Mutti and Vati deserting her - they did not explain why she had to leave with many other children of all ages, from babies through teens. They must not love me, she thought, and Vati didn't even come to the train to say goodbye. She was gratefully adopted after the War by English Aunt Enid and Uncle Donald Stratton. She changed her name, choosing the character in a well-loved book she read over and over - Heidi. Her early days are long forgotten, as is the German language and her Jewish heritage.

Hilly wonders why Heidigran easily remembers the names of hundreds of herbaceous annuals and perennials, but forgets the name of her son-in-law, and granddaughters, and that her husband passed away, expecting him to come around the corner at any time. Gran has known Reuben Jones for years, but at times when he comes over to visit and teach Hilly piano, Heidigran insists that she does not know him, that he should not be in the house, and should change his name from Reuben to another ('it's too Jewish'). And she insists that they should not be playing 'Rachel's piano'. From day-to-day she forgets where she is, and why, demanding that the doors be kept locked and bolted at all times, and is overly frightened when the police come to the door.

Trips are made to the Banbury house to clear out items, preparing the house for sale. In the process, Hilly finds a closet full of photos, and tries to find out the identity of people in the old pictures from Heidigran, who brushes off her queries. It is a slow process but even when Gran has her 'good days and moments', she is reluctant to discuss the photo of herself and Rachel even though the names are written on the back. Weaving back and forth within the story is the beating and hospitalization of Saeed, and a relationship Hilly forms with Saeed's brother Rashid. There are questions of mixed ethnic relationships, Hilly's violent migraine headaches, Zoe's relationship with a sassy punk, a possible pregnancy, and suspicion that she may have been involved with the beating of Saeed.

Presented in different times and points-of-view, Sisterland is hauntingly narrated by Hilly and fits well as a crossover read for both teens and adults. Readers are given a picture of historical and social relevance - anger, love, racism, homophobia, built-up guilt and puzzles across generations. The unveiling of past secrets affects the Craig family - such as Heidigran unintentionally revealing that Dad once had an extramarital affair, and her painful memories when she was taunted by schoolmates. Letters she wrote from England to Mutti and Vati were short, withholding anger and the pain of abandonment, and a letter she writes to someone named Rachel consistently says, 'Rachel, I am so sorry, please forgive me.'

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