Stories perfect for sisters

I'm the oldest of six siblings, and while as an adult I am quite close to all of my siblings, growing up I had a particularly close bond with my sister.

We were the only two girls — and the two oldest — and even now I think in some ways no one knows me quite as well as my sister does, which is probably why I'm often drawn to novels that highlight the unique bonds between sisters.

While it often felt like it was my sister and me against a horde of wild little brothers, we were lucky to have always had so many people we could depend on. I recently read two novels focusing on pairs of sisters who don't have the luxury of this type of support and have to rely on each other while undertaking complicated family journeys.

— Jess and Elise, the two sisters in Mary Miller's novel "The Last Days of California," are on a strange and meandering road trip with their family. Their parents, members of an evangelical church, believe that the rapture is imminent and will overtake the country starting from the east.

Her father decides the family should watch the impending rapture from the West Coast, so they leave their home in Alabama and head for California with the intent of saving as many souls as they can along the way. Jess is 15 years old and spends her time handing out religious tracts and wearing Jesus T-shirts to please her parents, all without examining her own beliefs.

She is the peacemaker in the family, while her older sister, Elise, makes no effort to hide her opposition, flouting her rebellion and instigating religious arguments whenever possible. Jess has just recently become aware of Elise's pregnancy, one of the many secrets the sisters are keeping from their parents.

As the girls and their parents traverse America in a haze of gas stations, Waffle Houses and highways, the sisters eat junk food in the car and bicker sullenly. Outside of the car, the girls are largely unsupervised as they wander the bland and seedy terrain of cheap motels, their parents preoccupied by greater worries both practical and spiritual.

As they get farther from home, Jess begins to question her father's motivation for their trip as well as her own family allegiances. Jess is in awe of Elise's world of boys, makeup and drinking, but she is also deeply worried for her sister and the risks she is taking. Torn between the safety of going along with her parents' idea of her and the new opportunities opened up by Elise's rebellion, Jess struggles to draw her own conclusions about who she wants to be.

— "This Dark Road to Mercy," a suspenseful new novel by Wiley Cash, focuses on a pair of sisters on a more dangerous journey.

After their mother dies suddenly of a drug overdose, 12-year-old Easter and her 6-year-old sister Ruby find themselves in a group home waiting to find out if they will be sent to Alaska to live with their estranged grandparents. Easter spends her time focusing on her love of baseball, her first crush and taking care of her small sister until their long-absent father, Wade, makes a surprise appearance.

Easter doesn't trust Wade, a former minor league baseball player and small-time crook, but when he shows up at their window one night and wants them to go with him, Easter decides it sounds like a better option than Alaska.

Easter and Ruby hit the road with their dad, and Easter soon realizes that she might have made a big mistake. Someone is following them — someone who is after something Wade has stolen and will do anything to get it back. Unbeknownst to any of them, they are also being tailed by their court-appointed guardian, a disgraced ex-cop who has gotten emotionally invested in the girls' return.

This is all played out against the backdrop of the 1998 home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, a contest followed closely by Easter and her father, who once played with Sosa in the minors.

While the girls tentatively bond with their dad, their pursuers are closing in and the situation starts to seem more desperate on all sides.

Easter has to make quick decisions about how much to trust her father to do what is best for herself and for Ruby — while realizing how hard it can be to tell the good guys from the bad.

These novels are very different in tone, one contemplative and the other fast-paced and suspenseful, but they both draw the reader deeply into the stories of young women thrust into journeys they didn't choose. Jess and Easter both struggle to make their way through messes created by the adults in their lives, but at least they have their sisters so they don't have to go through it alone.

Kasia Hopkins is an adult services librarian at the Urbana Free Library. She can be reached at khopkins@tufl.info.

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