“Girls Have Secrets, Men Have Honor”: A Review of Frail Sister by Karen Green

Natalie Dunn

Hudson River Valley, NY: Siglio Press, 2018. 164 pages. $39.95.

When a writer embraces the heterodoxy of merging image and text to tell a more complete version of their story, I trust them. I trust them because hybrid work that challenges old taxonomies, binaries, and paradigms is an attempt to make space for new and previously pushed aside voices; it is demonstrating the strongest forms of resistance right now. In deeming the taxonomy of art and literature as worn out, restrictive, and gendered, hybrid authors reclaim the printed page and ask more of us as readers. In Frail Sister, Karen Green cracks the door open for us to witness the beauty and intimacy of a single page, as well as indulge in the mystery story that unfolds before us.

Frail Sister is an epistolary portrait of a young woman named Constance Gale, a fictional character inspired by Green’s aunt Constance, who disappeared. Green, who finds little trace of her aunt, fills in the blanks of her memory through collage. Missives sketched over old sheet music and painted-over photographs ask us to consider memory as palimpsest—passed on, amended, invented, and sometimes, forgotten. The felt intimacy of the text immediately has the effect of discovering an old family member. It reminded me of shuffling through my grandmother’s boxes of ephemera toward the end of her life, when I held up photographs and asked her to tell me about them while she lay in bed. Her responses, affected by early dementia, lay somewhere between fact and fantasy. I liked believing everything she told me, considering it all as some form of truth, because aren’t all of our memories fabricated in some way? Green blurs the distinction between what is found and what is fabricated, asking us to consider how we project narratives onto that which we don’t know and onto the stories we tell about ourselves.

Frail Sister functions as both personal narrative and historical fiction. We follow Constance’s journey through womanhood over the years bookending World War II. Beginning with her life as a child musical prodigy during the Great Depression, to joining the United Service Organization as a musician in war-torn Italy, and finally, returning to New York City after the war. Green depicts Constance as complex, smart, daring, funny—traits that defy and transcend expectations of how women are typically depicted in 1940s America. Constance writes in a letter to her sister: “I know Mama’s theory is that I’ve gone wild, but maybe I was born so.”

Letters from Constance to her sister are the driving narrative in Frail Sister. She writes to her on any semblance of paper she can find: cocktail menus, newspaper clippings, sheet music, stationery, and old envelopes. The book begins:

Beloved Sister, This lock of hair to you I give
I pray you keep it while you live
If you should hear that I am dead
Remember I grew it on my head.

As the story unfolds, the letters begin to resemble Constance and her sister’s efforts to reclaim their memory during a time when women’s stories were pushed to the margins. The book reveals itself to be not only a portrait of two sisters but also an anachronistic piece that contributes to the larger narrative of the role of women during World War II. Frail Sister, it becomes apparent, is Green giving Constance the chance to be a protagonist in her own story. Constance writes,

We are not discarded in this war
We are not created and taken
We are the victors
We do not become vapor and ash
No we live.

Frail Sister image #2

Throughout the book, Constance floats between the spotlight and invisibility.  Her work as a performer brings unsolicited attention from soldiers. Suitors cloyingly address her as “Paper Doll,” “Darling,” and “Dearest,” professing their desire and asking for the “comfort of a woman” during the harrowing war.  One writes “Connie, I would write you just about every day if you would answer my letters. I have to wash my clothes tonight and we also have to wash the floors. That’s where you would come in good, you could wash my clothes, make the bed and all the jobs a girl should do. Love, Joseph.” Another suitor ends his letter: “P.S. What does ‘as ever’ mean? I hear it’s something awful. love, Louis.” The letters from soldiers, repetitive and gushy, are presented as if Constance kept them for mockery, all of them left unanswered.

Frail Sister image #3

Frail Sister is full of secrets—you can miss them if you’re not looking hard enough. Green beckons us to be voyeurs with the text and to look for answers in unknown places. Scribbled in barely legible writing on the back of an envelope half-way through the book reads: “Girls Have Secrets and Men Have Honor.” The secrets reveal themselves in snippets as we are let into Constance’s transition from girlhood to womanhood. At the dinner table her mother instructs her and her sister to always keep their legs crossed “until matrimony or its brimstone, etc.” When Constance gets her period for the first time she writes: “I only have the one towel. That is a battlefield on what Mama used to call my Dirty Front, bloody paisleys I wipe . . . wipe, crawl to sink, rinse, wring.” Later in the book when Constance returns to New York, we see the fear ensued by an unwanted pregnancy before Roe v. Wade.

Frail Sister image #4

Faces and names are covered with Wite-Out  throughout the book, almost as if Green is preserving the subject’s anonymity or reinstating their unimportance to the overall story. Constance later develops a fixation with Jane Doe victims—women who were brutally slain, unidentified, and subsequently tossed aside by society. Constance writes to her sister in fury and a call for attention: “CAN A WOMAN IN AMERICA STEP OFF THE EDGE OF THE WORLD AND NEVER BE MISSED???”

Frail Sister image #5

Hope shows itself in the form of a bridge. In a letter Constance writes to her sister, she asks, “How can we bridge the gulf?” Later, we see a collaged image of two mountains joined together by a bridge. Above one mountain reads: “THIS WORLD” and above the other: “THE NEXT.”  In between them a small cut out of “faith” is collaged in. If Constance is in THIS WORLD, THE NEXT represents that which is unknown: the future, her way out, the generations to follow. Frail Sister, I think, acts as the bridge between Green and Constance, between one generation of women to another. Constance’s story acts as a canvas for Green to discover, punctuate, and also reclaim. Her manipulation of Constance’s memory through collage is a reminder to turn over the stones of past generations in order to move through and transform the familial traumas we inherit.

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