Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway

sisters-of-heart-and-snowIn Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway returns to the central theme of her award-winning novel An American Housewife; the biracial and first generation Japanese-American experience.  Sisters Rachel and Drew Snow are the daughters of a merciless American businessman and his Japanese catalogue bride Hikari, who are thrown together as adults to take care of their declining mother after nearly two decades of estrangement.  When Hikari sends Rachel after a book that she hid in a closet in the family home, she enlists her sister Drew to help her retrieve it and translate it.  The book quickly becomes a mystery for the sisters to solve, as their mother’s increasing dementia makes her unavailable to provide any answers as to why it was so important to her.

Rachel and Drew find a translator for Hikari’s book, which turns out to be the legend and life of Tomoe Gozen, a famous onnamusha of middle age Japan and concubine to the feudal warlord Yoshinaka.  When Yoshinaka makes a marriage alliance to Yamabuki, a delicate young courtier who is ill-suited to their rough rural life, Tomoe surprises herself by developing a deep friendship with the girl that comes to hold more meaning than her love affair with Yoshinaka.

Outside, Yoshinaka sat atop a snorting black Demon, in his full battle gear of bearskin shoes and grand iron helmet.  Minammoto banners waved in the summer air.  Hundreds of soldiers cheered when they saw her.  “Tomoe!  Tomoe!”

She lifted a hand and their voices rose.  Without looking back at her family, Tomoe walked out from the porch and across the courtyard.  Cherry Blossom waited, with her scarlet saddle, her silken blankets, her tasseled bridle.

“Let us go!”  Yoshinaka shouted!  “We will show my cousin who the true leader is!”

Tomoe nodded and swung atop the horse.  They began walking out of the fortress, the dust kicking up.  Tomoe sat tall.  Only once did she turn  in her saddle and watch as the figures of the women on the porch grew smaller and smaller, waving at her until they shimmered and faded, like a memory.

As the sisters follow Tomoe’s life, they each wonder what their mother’s message was.  Does the relationship between these two legendary women parallel their own?  Is Drew the warrior, Rachel the wife?  Or was it meant to be the reverse?  Searching to understand their mother’s love, Drew and Rachel search the story of Tomoe for the parental involvement that they never found at home.

While the book-within-a-book structure of Sisters of Heart and Snow is a familiar one, Dilloway’s writing and thoughtful insight into the psychology of her characters makes the novel a compelling and sincere story about healing from family dysfunction. Lost in their own problems, the sisters must work to find common ground and a permanent place in the other’s life.  Now a mother herself, Rachel struggles with accepting her young daughter’s upcoming marriage, while fighting to keep her father from moving their mother to an overcrowded and underfunded nursing home.  Returning to San Diego at Rachel’s request, Drew quickly becomes involved in the day-to-day routines of Rachel’s family life, while she tries to piece together her own ambitions and a desire for the sort of lifetime partnership and love that she sees in her sister’s marriage.

As happens in so many broken families, every move the sisters make is fraught with the emotional history of unhappy memories.  As they move forward through the story, the sisters also move backwards into their childhood memories, where they must confront their wildly different experiences.  Their father’s bullying and their mother’s seeming negligence scarred Rachel and Drew, and much of the novel is engaged in coming to terms with what it means when your parents fail you.

Dilloway lets the story unfold simply, letting the straightforward thoughts of her characters dominate the prose.  As Rachel reflects on her childhood, she does it with the memories of a young adult, but with the understanding that only adulthood and time can bring.

I longed to talk to her, to cry into her shoulders, and several times I almost did.  I went to her quilt room where she sat sewing, sewing, sewing, like she was in some kind of factory with an imaginary deadline.  As I stood in the doorway, watching her head bent under the orange yellow desk lamp, I knew two things to be true.  She had her own demons.  And because of those, she’d be unable to be a mother in the way I needed a mother.

Even her memories of her father lean more towards understanding than anger.  While Killian hasn’t lost the power to hurt Rachel, he has lost his power to surprise her.  Her understanding and acceptance of his character protects her, while giving her the strength and determination to keep protecting her mother from him.

“Thanks,” I said, in response to the cash he handed me.  I’d trained myself not to respond to his barbs now, not the way I had when I was little.  When somebody is like him, you expect all kinds of mean things to come out of his mouth.  It barely affects you anymore.  Or so you think.  It’s like swallowing something sharp without realizing it, the object sitting undisturbed until years later, when your insides suddenly begin to bleed.

Likewise, the story of Tamoe Gozen is filled with moments of insight, as Tamoe balances her relationship with Yamabuki with their shared lover Yoshinaka.  Tomoe’s story is action-filled and fast, contrasting with the slower pace of Rachel and Drew’s unfolding drama.  Yet, Tomoe’s story fits well into the novel, as Rachel and Drew draw on it for inspiration and strength.  Although the road is rocky, they work to form a family again, just as Tomoe and Yamabuki did, when they could so easily have been rivals.

Without Yamabuki, Tomoe thought, she would have turned out like Yoshinaka and her brother.  Bitter, inflexible, battle-hungry, unable to take pleasure in anything but a fight.  It was because of Yamabuki that Tomoe had learned to enjoy the daily humdrum routine of life.  To find the poetry hidden in laundry day.  To learn how to become a mother.  To love somebody better than you loved yourself

The obvious theme of Sisters of Heart and Snow is the power and difficulty of sisterhood.  Dilloway looks at it from every angle, drawing together a thoughtful story of modern adulthood that stays with the reader long after the last page is finished.

  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
  • Publish Date: January 1, 2015
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • ISBN: 0399170804
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 4 of 5 stars


Genre: chick lit, contemporary, fiction

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: