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Bookends: A wild time in the old west February 7, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A wild time in the old west

By Dan Davidson

October 21, 2015

– 982 words

 

The Sisters Brother

By Patrick DeWittSisters

House of Anansi Press

344 pages

$17.96

KOBO e-book $9.99

 

Eli Sisters is not a happy man. Dominated by his brother, Charlie, he’s on his way down the west coast of the United States from Oregon to California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm on behalf of their boss, the Commodore. El doesn’t like being a killer for hire, but it seems to be all he’s good at. This bothers him. He has dreams of settling down and becoming a store keeper, but Charlie thinks that’s foolish.

It’s 1851 and the California Gold Rush is in full swing. The mission on which the brothers, who have achieved some notoriety in their profession, have been dispatched, has some connection to the rush, but they don’t know what.

This story is very much Eli’s, told in a nearly mournful, sometimes matter of fact, sometimes poetic, first person style that reveals almost as much as the words themselves.

He worries about everything: about the black rage that rises up to consume him when it’s time to draw his gun; about his weight; about his lack of success with women; about his brother’s constant drinking; about his sad, sad horse, which seems nearly dead on its feet half the time.

Charlie has always been the dominant one, but he is also the one who slows their journey down, drinking himself into a stupor from which it takes him a day to recover on more than one occasion. It is his abandoning of Eli in what they think is a witch’s house, that ends with Eli having to shoot the bear that attacked his horse, Tub, outside the house. Ultimately that assault leads to the horse’s death, but not before it has many more trials.

Eli’s experience with a self-taught frontier dentist is just one of the laconically funny bits in the book. The use the two brothers finally make of the anaesthetic liquid used during the tooth extraction is hilarious.

Equally funny is Eli’s conversion to the use of a toothbrush and minty tooth powder, Charles thinks it’s silly to begin with, but Eli, for once, ignores his brother’s scorn and Charlie ultimately takes up the habit himself.

They run into trouble in regular towns and in Mayfield, the town named after the hotel owner who had struck it rich in the goldfields. There are casual slaughters along the way, related as if they are ordinary, every day events, and not to be concerned about. In Mayfield there is at least the excuse that the men they killed were planning to kill them, but that hardly excuses the cold bloodedness of it all.

And yet, the narrative persuades us to like these men, or Eli, at least, and feel sorry for Charlie when tragedy overtakes him.

Arriving at last in San Francisco they find that the Commodore’s other agent, a man named Morris, has changed allegiances and gone off in search of gold with Warm.

Reading Morris’ journal they learn that Warm, who has an interesting backstory, has discovered a way of distilling a liquid that will reveal the presence of gold in any river or stream and enable a prospector to scoop it up with a minimum of effort.

Warm had, at one point, tried to interest the Commodore in his discovery, but that man simply tried to force the recipe from him and Warm just managed to escape with his life. This story meant that Warm was not the thief the brothers had been led to believe him to be, and caused them to begin to re-evaluate their association with their boss.

When they finally track down Warm and Morris they still haven’t really decided what to do with them, but they have decided to play out this adventure, return home, kill their boss and leave this life of murder and mayhem. Sadly for them, it doesn’t quire work out that way.

The special liquid works, works well, but it is very toxic, and wading in the water while it is working to reveal the gold has had an extremely deleterious effect on the legs of both Warm and Morris, who have been at it for some time before the brothers arrive on the scene. Ultimately, an accidental spill of the undiluted stuff onto Charlie’s hand results in such damage that the hand and part of his arm have to be amputated.

In the end, the brother’s quest for one final stake before quitting the killer’s life fails. Warm and Morris die of the toxicity. Indians (this is 1851 – you can still say that) relieve them of all the gold. They barely make it back to Oregon City, broke and damaged.

Along the way Eli stops to dispatch their former boss and they end up at their mother’s home. The book ends on one of those meditative notes that pop up throughout the narrative, with Eli lying on a mattress on the floor, listening to Charles taking a bath in the next room, hearing the movement of the water.

“It seemed to me I could gauge from these sounds the sorrow or gladness of their creator; I listened intently and decided that my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horrors. And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”

This is a multi-award winning book, having scooped up the Governor General’s Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2012 Stephen Leacock Medal (for humour), as well as the award for Best Fiction at the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards and the 2012 Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction.

It was shortlisted for several other awards, and has already been optioned for filming as a movie.

 

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