deWitt, P. (2011). The Sisters Brothers. New York: Ecco.
Hardcover $24.99, Paperback $14.99, Kindle $1.99, 336 pages
Author’s Website and Interviews:
Annotation: Eli is killer with a conscience and his brother Charlie has killing in his blood.
Summary (Warning Spoilers): Set in 1851, the story follows the lives of Eli and Charlie Sisters; brothers traveling from Oregon to San Francisco in search of their target, Hermann Kermit Warm a man the Commodore has ordered to be killed. The brothers work as contract killers for the Commodore and have been hired to kill Hermann, a man the Commodore claims has stolen from him. Charlie Sisters, the Commodore’s right hand man, has been given the lead on this particular job which causes a rift between himself and his brother Eli, who is beginning to question his life and his desire to leave the family business once and for all. Along their journey to California, the brothers encounter numerous challenges which not only threaten the mission at hand but also their brotherly bond. After discovering a diary belonging to Henry Morris, the Commodore’s supposed scout and confidant, the brothers discover that he has betrayed the Commodore and is now friends with Hermann. Henry’s journal details how the friendship was formed and Hermann’s development of a chemical formula that when placed in rivers can reveal where the gold is hidden by illuminating it temporarily. Both Eli and Charlie hesitate about killing Hermann since he is described by Henry as an honest and good man. The mission takes a drastic turn when the brothers forgo their hit and decide instead to join forces with Hermann and Henry. They meet up with both men and they all begin work on a prospecting operation run by Hermann. Although the formula is successful in helping the men retrieve the gold more efficiently, it comes at a dangerous price, as the formula is extremely toxic, proving fatal for Henry and Hermann. As the brothers make their way back to Oregon, Charlie must come to terms with the loss of his shooting hand which he lost due to exposure from the formula. Both Eli and Charlie make the decision to get out of their current line of work, a decision that came as a relief to Eli whose conscience and sense of obligation were always pitted against one another. After losing all of their money, and with Herman and Henry dead, both men return to their mother’s house in order to regroup and decide how best to handle the Commodore. While Charlie is bathing, Eli sneaks out of the house and murders the Commodore in cold blood. Although he has committed murder, it is not done purely of out vengeance, but for freedom. Eli and Charlie are now free to live their lives outside the shadow of the deadly past and can begin to reconcile not only their consciences but their brotherhood as well.
Evaluation: I was initially skeptical about this book’s ability to grab my attention and keep me turning the pages. After only 10 pages, I was hooked and immediately drawn to and empathizing with the plight of Eli. He is such a complex character yet is portrayed in such a simplistic way. The use of humor really helps to keep the storyline from becoming stagnant and really helps the brothers overcome some rather precarious situations. This is not your traditional Western with its simplistic writing style and deep themes and character development. The book left me emotionally invested in two kill for hire psychos who are so comedic at times you can’t help but love them both. I like that his book breaks free from the typical stereotypes surrounding Westerns as there is almost no action other than the occasional shots being fired. I recommend this book to anyone who roots for the underdog, who loves dark comedy, and who wants to see the “bad” guys win. It is simplistic writing at its best and will draw you in from the first exchange between Eli and his horse Tub, a relationship that is both pathetic and heart warming.
Appeal Factors: Empathy for Eli (killer with a conscience), riveting, dark, and humorous with a plot that is multi-layered. Atmospheric, reflective, character driven.
Read-alike Titles and Authors:
True Grit by Charles Portis
The Outcasts by Kathleen Kent
The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
Etta by Gerald Kolpan
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
2011 75th Govenor General’s Literary Awards winner
2012 Stephen Leacock Medal winner
2012 Walter Scott Prize winner
- Present the moral dilemma Eli faces as he is forced to choose between his loyalty to his brother and his desire to abandon his life of crime. Also could present the dilemma both brothers face as they are sent to kill a man they discover is honest and kindhearted?
- You know Eli’s desire to kill the Commodore and escape his life of crime but Charlies does not. Skirt around the secret that Eli has killed the Commodore in cold blood.
- Link the book to movies like True Grit
Book Discussion Questions:
1. Why is the “Weeping Man” weeping? We never discover the cause of his crying. Why do you think deWitt chose to include this character in the book?
2. What do you make of Eli’s connection to Tub? Is Eli’s compassion used to contrast with is brothers lack of empathy?
3. Do you believe Charlie respects and cares for Eli or is Eli merely a pawn in his brother’s game to overthrow the Commodore?
4. Eli states that he has a quick trigger that makes it easy to kill. Do you think Charlie exploits this? If so, why? Please provide examples.
5. The brother’s return home to their mother at the end of the book. What does this symbolize for Eli? for Charlie?
6. Why do you think Eli kills the Commodore without telling Charlie? Does his killing the Commodore make you less empathetic to him?
This book was selected by classmates for inclusion in a book discussion. I was initially drawn to the book because it was something very out of my genre comfort zone. I have never read a Western book before and I will admit I had quite a few preconceived notions about it being dry, boring, and completely unrelatable. I wanted to be proven wrong! I had read that it was a dark comedy and I was very curious to see how deWitt could put a comedic spin on a traditional western in a modern way.