In 1969, the first footsteps on the moon brighten America with possibilities. But along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a category five storm is brewing, and the Blake sisters of Biloxi are restless for change. Beth “Sis” Blake has always been the caretaker, the dutiful one, with the weight of her family’s happiness—and their secrets—on her shoulders. She dreams of taking off to pursue her own destiny, but not before doing whatever it takes to rescue her sister.
Emily Blake, an unwed mother trying to live down her past, wants the security of marriage for the sake of her five-year-old son, Andy. But secure is the last thing she feels with her new husband. Now she must put aside pride, and trust family to help her find the courage to escape.
With Hurricane Camille stirring up havoc, two sisters—each desperate to break free—begin a remarkable journey where they’ll discover that in the wake of destruction lies new life, unshakable strength and the chance to begin again.
The Oleander Sisters is the second book I’ve read by Elaine Hussey who previously wrote The Sweetest Hallelujah, a book that has stayed with me despite its saccharine sweetness. The Oleander Sisters has the same overly flowery language as the previous books which can be quite off-putting but there was something about the Southern charm of it all that drew me in nevertheless.
The Blake family are a tight unit of varying characters who have had more than their fair share of tragedy in their lives. Orphaned at a young age, the oldest sister, Beth, takes over the maternal role to her younger twin siblings, Jim and Emily, to the point she has lost her own identity and everyone knows her as Sis. Old before her time, Sis has given up on the idea of ever having a family of her own and concentrates on looking after the one she has.
Storms, both literal and metaphorical, are on the horizon though as Jim returns from Viet Nam a broken man and Emily is determined to marry a man she barely knows to give her son a father. Additionally, Sis’s beloved grandmother, Sweet Mama, is struggling with memory problems and trying hard to hide it from her family. The story is told from the point of view of Sis, Emily and Sweet Mama so some of the other characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. For example, it is obvious Jim is suffering from PTSD and finding it hard to accept having an amputated leg but it feels like he is very much on the sidelines of this story.
The same can be said of Beulah, who first came into Sweet Mama’s life as her maid, however the two have formed a solid friendship over the years bound by a grim secret. I loved the friendship between these two and I think this would have made an intriguing story on its own. Sweet Mama’s struggles with her memory is heartbreaking, especially when you realise she isn’t hiding it as well as she thinks. However, when Sweet Mama discovers Emily is being abused by her new husband, she takes drastic action even though she is haunted by her own past.
As the family come together to protect Emily, they are threatened by an external source in the shape of Hurricane Camille whose foreboding presence looms over much of the novel. Hurricane Camille was a category five hurricane that really did strike the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 1969 and claimed the lives of 259 people. Biloxi, where the story is set, was one of the worst hit areas and resulted in millions of pounds worth of damage. The Blake family don’t get the chance to evacuate but they ride out the storm together and there is a sense nothing can break their impenetrable bond. A bond that soon extends to the rest of the community as they come together to rebuild their lives in the aftermath.
The story is at its best when it is examining the human spirit’s ability to endure and how it is strengthened through family love and friendship. Those who choose to isolate themselves, soon discover they are stronger with others and richer for the experience.