I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
Tom Burton, the central character of Thomas Savage’s tenth novel, is patterned very closely on the author. They are the same age, and both are novelists with the same publisher; their immediate families are also similar. Whether the rest of the novel is factual is not relevant, for Savage writes convincingly of the forebears of the fictional Tom Burton. In a novel whose title gives away its punch line as this one does, it is difficult to maintain suspense, but the intricate weaving of the many strands of the story keeps the reader wondering how the various parts will ultimately fit together. The book achieves its intrigue through the author’s juggling of several storylines, switching from one time and locale to another, without supplying the necessary connections until the pieces begin falling into place by themselves. Gradually all coalesces at the end.
The book opens with a description of Tom Burton and his family in their home at Crow Point, on the Maine coast. We learn of Tom’s career as a novelist and of his novelist wife and grown children. We also get a hint of his family heritage from his comments that his aunts could not understand why he would leave the Rocky Mountains, and that he wanted to get as far as he could from the Montana ranch of his youth where his “beautiful, angel mother” was so unhappy. This idyllic introduction is abruptly dropped as the next chapter begins the apparently unrelated episode of a young twenty-two-year-old mother giving up her newborn child in the year 1912. This child turns out to be Amy McKinney.
Amy McKinney’s life is then related in detail. She is adopted by the McKinneys to replace their own son who had been killed by being thrown from a horse. The McKinneys were good, ordinary, uninspired people. Amy’s life is only briefly disturbed when a malicious child acquaintance mentions that she is an adopted child. But Amy quickly recovers from the shock and accepts her foster mother’s reassurances. After the death of her adoptive parents she goes through a rather loveless and sterile marriage with Philip Nofzinger, followed by a very amicable divorce.
Throughout his description of Amy’s life, Savage’s keen sense of family ties is evident. That is, Amy’s whole existence, though not marred by any overt tragedy, comes across as a very dull, uninspiring, almost emotionless affair. She feels no real sense of belonging to a family, and since she has no siblings, the death of her parents ends any sense of belonging. Her cousins feel that the family’s prized silverware should go to real family rather than to the adopted outsider. Savage is guilty of stacking the cards against Amy. The McKinneys are not consciously comparing Amy to their own lost child and thus depriving her of a normal childhood; they are giving her the best of which they are capable. They are simply a stodgy couple who keep to themselves and would rear any child to be dull and emotionally deprived.
It is only after her divorce that Amy seriously thinks of the note her father had left in his safe deposit box for her. Mr. McKinney had believed in the right of an adopted child to learn of her real parents despite the laws to the contrary, and being a lawyer he had had the wherewithal to procure the name her mother had signed on the release papers. With the help of a lawyer Amy discovers the real names of her mother and father, and after a fruitless search for her father (she was directed to a deceased derelict with a similar name), she is apparently reconciled to never discovering who her real parents are. With this the story of Amy gives way to a new set of characters.
The second section of the book is set in the small, dying mining town of Jeff Davis Gulch where one of the last remaining prospectors, George Sweringen, discovers gold. George and his family are dropped while the narration picks up Emma Russell, who “quite a long time ago” left Illinois for Idaho Territory to teach school. In Idaho, the plain but highly intelligent Emma marries Thomas Sweringen, the son of George, who had invested his gold in property and had begun a dynasty. The major portion of the book deals with Emma, whose shrewdness and luck in business results in her increasing the family’s holdings and becoming known as the Sheep Queen. All through the relation of these events the reader is kept guessing what each segment of the story has to do with the others; and unless he is keeping track of the names and the...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
Book World. October 30, 1977, p. E8.
Kirkus Reviews. XLV, August 1, 1977, p. 805.
Library Journal. CII, November 15, 1977, p. 2364.
New York Times Book Review. November 13, 1977, p. 26.
Publisher’s Weekly. CXII, August 8, 1977, p. 64.
West Coast Review of Books. III, November, 1977, p. 30.