The Oleander Sisters by Elaine Hussey is an emotional story set in 1969 Mississippi that follows four sisters through the ups and down of the changing times (available July 29, 2014).
Let’s hear it for skeletons and Southern comfort.
I had a banner year in 1969. In January, I met my future husband on a blind date; in May, we became engaged; in June, I graduated from high school and began going to secretarial school; and in August, I had a wedding. Almost forty-five years later, we’re still celebrating anniversaries, and I just finished a book I absolutely loved that was set in 1969.
The Oleander Sisters by Elaine Hussey is like sitting down and devouring warm chocolate cake. It’s delicious to the last bite, and you hate when you have to put the empty plate in the sink.
Four women are featured prominently in the book and they are magnificent. First, we get to know Beth Blake, the stalwart protector of her disjointed family, Emily Blake, the single mother of the delightful Andy, Sweet Mama, the grandmother who raised the girls after their parents died, and Beulah, who came to help when Sweet Mama was a young bride and became an integral member of the little group.
Needless to say, Biloxi, MS, is hot in the summer. Humidity and heat are summer companions every year in this area. Beth, who is called Sis by everyone, is carrying heavy loads this summer. Emily is engaged to a man that Sis feels is deceitful in every way. But Emily, who has gone through the pain of a pregnancy at sixteen and raising her son alone, is delighted to think she’ll have a normal family and Andy will have a father. Added to that, Sweet Mama is showing signs of memory loss and is desperate to keep her bossy son, Steve, from putting her in a nursing home.
As with most Southern tales, food figures prominently in this story, especially Sweet Mama’s special Amen cobbler. With a sweet mixture of peaches and cherries, it’s baked every day at the café, and people travel long ways to enjoy a dish of it. When Sweet Mama’s husband deserted her and her two sons, she decided she’d use her skill with pastry to open a bakery. With Beulah’s help, that little bakery eventually became Sweet Mama’s Café, serving crispy fried chicken, fluffy mashed potatoes, and light-as-air biscuits along with Amen pie for dessert.
It’s a special day at the little café. Neil Armstrong is about to walk on the moon, and little Andy is thrilled. Sis and Emily’s brother, Jim, is coming home from Vietnam. He has lost a leg along with the carefree disposition his sisters loved. Sis doesn’t know what to do with the brooding, despondent young man living with them now. However Sis’s problems are just beginning.
When Emily insists on a garden wedding at the big pink Victorian house where the Blakes live, Sis goes out to work on the dried-up garden that once had a beautiful array of roses. When she decides the only hope is to plant new bushes and hope they bloom by Emily’s wedding day, she finds more than the roots of the puny bush. She finds bones, white with age and obviously human. Whose bones are they? Who put them here? How can Emily get married in a garden where family secrets are buried?
Hussey has a wonderful way with her words that not only allow you to know the heart of the character, but to be away of the emotional impact of the environment on that character. This is her description of the drive to the café from the bus station for Sis and Jim:
Without another word, she led him to the car and headed back to the café. He stared at the Gulf as they barreled down Highway 90, the breeze from his rolled-down window blowing his yellow hair straight back from eyes turned as glassy and unseeing as the blue china plate Sweet Mama had picked to serve his welcome-home cake. Sis’s hope flew right out the window. She imagined it sailing across the water like the favorite kite she’d loved and lost when she was six years old, before Emily and Jim were born, before their pink Victorian house across from the seawall became a place where a little girl had to grow up too fast.
There are wonderful scenes like this throughout The Oleander Sisters. But weaving through this delightful story is the mystery of those bones in garden. Though Sis decides to leave doing anything about them until after Emily’s wedding, they’re never far from her thoughts and bring up nightmares and forgotten memories.
The relationship between Sis and Emily is so sweet, and Hussey knows how to make it very special, “When you love a sister, you know her songs as well as her secrets.”
In the midst of the responsibilities falling heavily on Sis’s shoulders, a door from her past opens and Michael Clemson steps back into her life. They played baseball together as children, and now his presence brings a little flare of hope to Sis’s heart.
In spite of the family’s speculations about Larry, Emily’s wedding day arrives and must go on?in the back garden, much to Sis’s regret.
The morning came whether Sis wanted it to or not. She rolled over and tried to glare the clock into submission, but it just kept on ticking off the minutes till her sister’s wedding…She pulled the sheet over her face and wallowed in something resembling self-pity until…the sounds of Beulah banging and hollering through her door…
“Lord Jesus, Sis, if you sick I ain’t gonna be able to handle this wedding by myself… I just wanted to make sure you wadn’t dead in there and a house full a company heading this way.” Beulah whisked the cloth off the tray. “Eat everything on it. If you don’t keep your strength up, you ain’t gonna be able to stand watching Emily marry that coward and slacker.”… Beulah took the dress off the hanger, shook it out then laid it across the bed. “Last time you acted like this, I made you stand in the corner.”
“I’m too old to stand in the corner.”
“You ain’t ever too old for nothing.”
Beulah marched out without another word, and Sis was left feeling the way she had when she was twelve and Beulah caught her pouting because she couldn’t be on the boys’ baseball team. She’d received the same kind of pep talk, one she still remembered as she slathered a biscuit with butter, then washed it down with good, strong coffee.
Sounds like a typical family wedding day to me, and I loved every minute of it. This is a book that took me through a wonderful ride of emotions. I fell in love with the Blake family, just like I think you will as they move through their daily struggles, right up until they have to face an angry force that’s much bigger and more ferocious than anything else coming at them?Hurricane Camille. That was another big event in 1969. Like I said, it was a heck of a year.
That’s the thing about family troubles, though. There’s always something to add to the pile that just wipes everybody out or makes them stronger. Now you’ve got all the stuff to make a good story: a spine-tingling mystery, the unending trials of family, and a force of nature barreling down on them unstoppably.
Beyond the seawall, boats were being flung about like toys. Two of them collided and splintered into pieces that flew all over the beach. Camille was out there somewhere howling at her pranks, just getting warmed up…
Twigs and leaves were caught in Sis’s hair and there was mud all over Jim’s boot and that leg she’d kept on her dresser. Instinctively, Sweet Mama opened her arms, and they came to her without a single word and huddled against her shoulder, grown-ups suddenly turned young again, children who needed a hug.
In the end, of course, it’s always good to have family.
I promise you’ll find yourself wanting to read this while sitting on the front porch enjoying tall glasses of sweet iced tea, just like Sweet Mama and Beulah do every day!
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Leigh Neely is a former journalist and editor who writes fiction with her writing partner, Jan Powell. The first book of “The Connelly Witches” miniseries from Harlequin E is available now. Witch’s Awakening by Neely Powell is available as an ebook and will soon be an audio book. Witch’s Haunting comes out in late fall, and you can also get True Nature at all book sites online. Leigh also writes for the popular blog, WomenofMystery.net.