Sep. 6, 2008

Little Sisters

by Sonia Gernes

This birthday I have reached the age
where my mother bore
the last of her dead daughters—
one that was whisked away
before its first clean cry
could scour the naked room, the later two
a blue that refused to brighten.

"Baby Girl, Infant Daughter of ..."
the little markers said
and I listened from behind the stove
in her last pregnancy,
watched her body swell and sag,
knew from the shape
of those whispered words
that something was amiss—
she was weighted already
with two small stones.

Summer mornings I called them forth—
the little sisters I had never seen—
made them faces
from the old ache
in the air above the garden,
hair like mine
from the grassy space
where root crops should have been.

I learned of blood tests, transfusions,
the factor called Rh,
my little sisters
dreaming their aquatic days
on lethal ropes, my mother
almost dead.

Now at the kitchen table
lighting candles on a cake,
I am empty-handed,
no daughters to give her
as she counts again
my miraculous birth,
fourth and forceps-born,
her last survivor in that war
of blood with family blood.

I reach for her hand and hold it,
but there are spaces here,
tender lacunae we cannot fold away.
Still somewhere the hand-stitched garments,
the gingham quilts, the counting game.
Still the soot-smudged corner
where I crouched beneath the stovepipe
and fingered like a rosary
the small pebbles of their names.

"Little Sisters" by Sonia Gernes from What You Hear in the Dark: New and Selected Poems. © University of Notre Dame Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Sebold, (books by this author) born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She grew up wanting to be a writer, and went to Syracuse University, where some of the best writers in America were teaching, including Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. But one night during her freshman year of college, Sebold was walking home when she was attacked, dragged into an underground tunnel, and raped. She thought that she was going to be murdered. When she later talked to the police, they said that a girl had recently been murdered in that same tunnel, and so she should consider herself lucky for having survived.

A few weeks later, Sebold spotted the rapist on the street, and she went to the police. He was arrested, and Sebold testified against him at trial. She was subjected to a brutal cross-examination by the defense attorney, and police later said that she was one of the best rape witnesses they had ever seen on the stand. The rapist was convicted and received the maximum sentence.

Sebold thought that the end of the trial would put the experience behind her, but for the next fifteen years she struggled to have relationships with other people, and she struggled to write. She tried going to graduate school and dropped out. She moved to New York and started drinking a lot and dabbling in drugs.

She decided a change of scenery might help, so she moved to California, and got a job as a caretaker of an arts colony, where she lived in a cabin without electricity, reading and writing at night by propane light. In the back of her mind she'd always thought about what those policeman had said to her about that other girl who had been murdered in that same tunnel. One day, Sebold sat down at her desk and began writing a story in the voice of a teenage girl who has been murdered, and in one sitting she wrote the entire opening of what would become her novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered fourteen-year-old girl looking down from heaven as her family tries to recover from the grief of her death.

Sebold's agent had a hard time selling the novel, since most publishers were wary about a book narrated by a dead girl. But it was eventually picked up by Little, Brown, and it became a word-of-mouth sensation among booksellers and critics before it was even published. It came out in June of 2002, a few months before Sebold's thirty-ninth birthday. It sold more than 2 million copies, becoming the best-selling book in 2002.

Sebold has said in interviews that she was as surprised by the book's success as anyone. She said, "It's very weird to succeed at thirty-nine years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted anyway."

Sebold is also the author of the memoir Lucky (1999).

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