The Sisters Brothers
Paperback version 336 pages
eBook version: Portrait 368 pages
Publisher: Ecco (Harper Collins)
Publication Date: February 14, 2011
The best thing about Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers is that it is an inventively unusual and magnificently flowing piece of fiction. (For those of you wishing to pad your reading list for the year this book is an extraordinarily quick read and I found it nearly impossible to put down.) The language is strong, in plot and content, the story compelling, exciting and creative, and the characters, while flawed and slightly comical and buffoonish, are totally believable and empathetic, especially the narrator. It takes a special story to interrupt my customary fare of Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Sisters Brothers is just that. It was so exceptional, in fact, that it wiggled its way into my already-waiting-to-tip-over reading pile. When I started it I didn’t realize that it was a Western, a genre I don’t normally read, but the blurbs and back-cover description gave an “otherworldly” or “sinister” vibe to me which was the deciding factor. Once I began reading, however, I was hooked. Additionally, the cover art and title seemed both unusual and remarkable in their own ways and I wanted to know more about the characters depicted there. (It turns out that sometimes you CAN judge a book by its cover.)
The Sisters Brothers is dark, disturbing, gory, bloody and, above all, great fun to read. It’s packed with home-spun wisdom, wagon-train philosophy, and frontier angst and is a creative and unique blending of a time-worn genre and contemporary thought. What I find interesting is that this atypical, Western-inspired tale does not follow customary themes (i.e. Cowboys versus Indians, The 7th Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, a lone gunman seeking retribution against past wrongs, or an evil cattle baron buying or stealing all the land in the peaceful valley.) It seems that Mr. deWitt is a frontier philosopher of sorts and those values rub off marvelously on his characters. Assassins inclined to discuss their own brand of twisted philosophy prior to heading off into a gunfight? Priceless! There are numerous quests and a few missions and lots of bloodshed and a double-cross or two. There are gunfights and surprises, and animal husbandry and a bit of cruelty, and prospecting for gold, and insanity, and dirty characters, inside and out. There’s arrogance and a price to pay for it in many guises. There’s humility and reward, albeit somewhat unsatisfactory for the character in question. There are attitudes of the frontier and the trail and there’s bloodlust and violence everywhere and the mentality of gunfighters can be found on almost every page. But there are many unique ideas and themes here that you will not find in other Westerns. Most noticeably is a strong, quick, un-squandered language that fits perfectly within the genre yet flows exquisitely. And that language helps make Patrick deWitt’s re-envisioning of the Wild Old West feel more authentic and realistic.
The two main characters, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are well-known gun slingers in and around Oregon and northern California and the mere mention of their names can bring hard men to their knees and send weak men running for the hills. But the Sisters brothers are psychologically flawed from a young age. Witnesses to the brutal beating of their mother by their father and the subsequent murder of their father by Charlie, the two six-gun-toting brothers couldn’t be more different. Charlie is tortured, arrogant, and tough and Eli is complex, sensitive, and often tender-hearted. And while Charlie kills for the sport and pleasure of it Eli kills to protect his older brother who saved him from a life of abuse. The Sisters Brothers is, in essence a quest story. Charlie and Eli are sent by their boss, The Commodore, to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a supposed thief, and return to Oregon with his secret formula for easily extracting gold from the rivers. But this is not the main quest of the book. The true pursuit is the search for self and the realization that what we do in our younger years molds us into who we are to become as adults. The human drama is laid bare but you have to peek around the gun fights, between the fist fights, the drunken debauchery, the mind-numbing hours on horseback, the dirt coffee, and the mindless prospectors that have been too long in the wilderness to find it. Look hard. It’s there. The exploration is well-worth the price of admission.
By all accounts this book should have tanked with me (according to my genre choices and reading preferences.) But, here’s the thing, as soon as I started reading it I knew that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. It was that captivating, that unique, and that sublime. Never before have I reviewed a semi-historical Western but, as they say, “things change” and so I am reviewing this romp through the Old West and gladly so. Why? To use the vernacular, it’s a “damn fine” story, that’s why.
4 ½ stars out of 5
The Alternative One
Recommended if you appreciate Westerns, exceptionally plotted narratives, action-packed gun and fist fights, old west debauchery and saloons, unscrupulous men and their corrupt actions, and home-spun comedy combined with a bit of cowboy buffoonery.