A summer spent reading family sagas reminded me how frequently these stories turn on a misunderstanding. Surprisingly often, sibling relationships bear the fallout. Beyond that, I discerned few rules — except that if the saga is set in the Midwest, a pie must appear.
In J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, “The Lager Queen of Minnesota,” pie meets beer. The Magnusson sisters, Edith and Helen, navigate decades of estrangement before finally coming face to face at a brewery. (Edith is the champion pie-maker, Helen a successful brewmaster.)
Their years-long failure to communicate, or even know much about each other, can seem implausible in tight-knit, gossip-happy Minnesota. Nevertheless, Stradal specializes in the unlikely and, not incidentally, in the pleasures of food and drink. Offered a second slice, even the reader who knows better is apt to give in
Stradal first set out his beguiling literary wares in “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” using eight interconnected narratives to tell the story of Eva Thorvald, an awkward charmer who becomes a celebrated chef. Though more conventionally structured, “The Lager Queen” features a similar cast of homespun heroes.
The Magnusson sisters’ misunderstanding is rooted in the sale of the family farm. As Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, moves to the center of the story, their conflict recedes, costing the narrative some of its urgency. However, in the upper Midwest, conflict can be so embarrassing that it pushes the parties into silence. If Stradal opts for avoidance, he comes by it naturally. (Equally natural, fortunately, is the warmth with which he shapes the novel’s conclusion, and nudges its self-denying characters toward a more abundant life.)
No such reserve afflicts “A Thousand Acres,” Jane Smiley’s sibling tragedy modeled on “King Lear.” The story of a family farm divided and ultimately lost, “A Thousand Acres” was first published in 1991 and remains a powerful achievement. The particulars of Iowa farm life are rendered with a sure hand, and include an enormous amount of cooking. And yes, pie turns up, leftover sweet potato, in a meal served shortly after the family patriarch transfers his holdings to his three daughters.
Some readers may balk at Smiley’s use of repressed memories to drive the action. (At the time she was writing, the controversial theory seemed to be everywhere.) But this is no exercise in fact finding. As in the Shakespeare drama, the human relationships unfold with raw truthfulness, inviting a plunge into our deepest fears. By the end, the two eldest sisters have come to know each other, and the costs of love, with an irreducible finality.
“The End of Loneliness,” Benedict Wells’s international bestseller, contains no farm to be lost, only the known world of a child. Set in contemporary Germany and France, and recently translated into English, the story centers on three siblings — Jules, Martin and Liz Moreau — who are orphaned by the sudden death of their parents. Jules, the youngest, weighs their failure to nurture each other in the aftermath. Through him, Wells has constructed a probing study of self-creation and forgiveness.
Like Jules, 7-year-old Tommy MacAllister is the youngest of three. But in “Testing the Current,” William McPherson’s beautifully crafted novel of childhood, the two older brothers provide scaffolding for understanding parents who are very much there.
Set in Michigan at the end of the Depression, the book centers on a well-to-do crowd that summers together on a chain of islands. Tommy’s adored oldest brother, John, is a handsome fraternity president who treats Tommy kindly. David, the 19-year-old middle brother, teases him with games of Fifty-Two Pickup and other indignities.
David has followed John to Northwestern but dropped out, opting to work in the chemical factory run by the boys’ father. The tension between father and son instructs Tommy in what will be expected of him. Through both brothers, he is introduced to the mystery of girlfriends, and to the darker secrets of the neighbors.
The summer culminates in a gala marking the MacAllisters’ 25th anniversary, planned to the last detail by Tommy’s mother, and set at the country club. During the party, the dissatisfactions of the MacAllisters’ marriage erupt publicly. Tommy witnesses several vicious exchanges that reveal additional fault lines in his world. Word comes that France and England have declared war against Germany. Yet back in town, settled into their recently redecorated house, the MacAllister family seems as solid as Gibraltar.
Tommy’s mother possibly has a lover, yet surely they will return to their usual life on the island next summer. Even David’s modest rebellion against the social code has not held; he is going back to college, and plans to marry. Though everyone is pleased, Tommy’s developing interior life makes clear that his own story is far from written. In literature as in life, the sibling who cannot keep his pie-hole shut is the one to watch.
M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.