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Review of The Sisters Brothers

May 24, 2011


Patrick deWitt’s clever new book The Sisters Brothers is equal parts Western, historical fiction, and family drama. He expertly weaves all three genres (plus a little magical realism) into one grand story that is humorous, smart and deeply satisfying.
The backdrop is the Gold Rush days of the 1850s and brothers Eli and Charles Sisters are gunslingers who work for a powerful man called the Commodore in Oregon. He sends the brothers on a mission to find and kill the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm who lives in San Francisco. Warm holds the formula for extracting gold from rivers in a grander manner than just panning for it and the Commodore wants it.
The brothers set out on horseback and encounter hair-raising and life-changing challenges around every turn. There’s killing, camp fires, and horse troubles coupled with whores, dentists and demonic children.  There’s also the interplay of the two brothers as they find their loyalties tested and their roles shifting.
Eli is curious, neurotic, introspective and mostly a gentle soul – the complete opposite of his brother.  Charlie, who is more of a bully and perhaps a little too confident for his own good, is a hard drinker who doesn’t lose any sleep over killing a man. Eli tends to fall in love a lot and he questions whether he wants to continue in this line of work.  After visiting a general store, he thinks perhaps he’d be happier as a proprietor living the quiet life.  All this rumination is what keeps the narrative moving.  Will they complete the task?  Will the brothers have a permanent falling out?  Will they live to see another day?
The Sisters Brothers is a comedy of sorts. The title should be enough to tip you off to the fact that there’s a thread of humor running through the story.  It’s not laugh-out-loud humor though – more like a dry wit a la Pulp Fiction.  One of the funnier threads is dental related.  Eli meets up with dentist, Reginald Watts, who pulls his bad tooth and then turns him on to the secrets of a fresh and minty breath by showing him what a toothbrush is and how to use it once a day.  Is this the first step toward civility?  Then there’s his obsession with his rotund body. He says, “I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?”  He then goes on a diet.
There’s so much to like about this book but the best part of The Sisters Brothers is the funny and often touching dialogue between the two brothers.  It makes The Sisters Brothers a one-of-a-kind original read.

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