Charlie Sisters is a talented gunman and a sociopath-by-choice in the service of the Commodore.
Eli Sisters is his subservient partner in crime and his younger brother.
Together they are the titular Sisters brothers featured in Patrick deWitt’s novel.
A feared duo of killers from Oregon, they have never failed to complete a mission, often with a surplus of additional casualties.
Life is cheap on the frontier, and cheaper still if you stand in the path of the Sisters brothers.
This might sound like a Western novel and that is definitely a part of the equation, but there is much more to this book.
The novel has garnered a ton of praise from the literary community. It won the Governor General’s literary award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prize. In addition, it was short-listed for both the Giller prize and the Booker prize.
However, it is not just a work to be savoured by the academic community. Several scenes within are not for the faint of heart, academic or otherwise, so if the first couple pages make you queasy, you might want to stop reading.
The novel is narrated by Eli, the younger of the two Sisters brothers. He is used to following his elder brother’s lead in their nefarious business dealings. After a time, however, he begins to question his initial assumptions.
His brother is a villain, and an unapologetic one at that, aping the iniquitous depravity of his employer, the Commodore. The Commodore has become an exceptionally wealthy man through unscrupulous land speculation, and by way of his unhesitant elimination of any rivals.
Eli is not exactly righteous. He is definitely not respectable or proper. No one would consider his conduct saintly or high-minded.
When compared to his brother, however, or to the Commodore, Eli is a loveably flawed rogue. This vein of goodness is initially reflected in Eli’s desire for fairness, and an equal share in the profits.
Further mining through the many challenging situations presented by their assigned quest reveal an unexpected depth of empathy and character in Eli, and consequent doubts about his life’s path thus far.
His attitude towards his horse, Tub, truly shows this transition. He is initially scornful of his mount, the one designated to him after his brother has taken the better horse. In one encounter along the way poor Tub loses an eye helping to defend against a bear attack. Charlie advises Eli to sell him to the slaughterhouse, especially after they find a superior horse abandoned on the trail.
Eli instead chooses to sell the found horse, indicating that Tub’s service requires a reciprocated understanding. This burgeoning morality is one reason this novel is regarded as an example of the picaresque. That and the many examples of gallows humour.
Eli may be rough around the edges, and come from a poor upbringing, but a core of moral fortitude has nonetheless survived the dehumanizing endeavours he has participated in.
Charlie and Eli have been dispatched by the Commodore to hunt down and terminate the life of one Hermann Kermit Warm. The Commodore claims that the man has stolen from him, which the brothers determine to be untrue after many adventures on the road. Charlie remains determined to carry out the Commodore’s will, but Eli’s doubts are redoubled — both about their employer, and about his brother’s ability to be the primary decision maker.
Warm himself has developed a chemical formula which causes placer gold to glow brightly when exposed to it. This miraculous concoction is the real reason that the Commodore wants Warm dead.
Eventually the brothers discover Warm, and Morris (the man sent to watch him) at their claim.
Instead of assassinating him, the brothers are convinced to ally themselves to Warm’s cause. What follows include scenes of surreal beauty, heartbreaking tragedy and black, black comedy.
Will the brothers survive the transformation? Catharsis is usually painful and occasionally fatal, but this journey must be completed once it has been undertaken.
Both the literal journey to California and back home, and the spiritual journey from unconscionable scoundrels to what they will become.
Jason Wiggins is owner of The Book Place at 248 Third Ave. downtown.