Missing presumed dead, the young Larry Merkel was reportedly the first causality of the giant tornado that touched down one afternoon in the small town of Leaford in Southern Ontario. The citizens also blamed the sudden death of Dr. Ruttle on the storm, the stress from the tornado purportedly inducing his massive heart attack.
Even more bizarre is the precipitous arrival of Ruby and Rose Darlen - the world's longest surviving conjoined craniopagus twins - born on that fateful day in 1974. With their mother allegedly dying alone in Toronto of sepsis eight weeks postpartum, the twins were adopted by a kindly overweight nurse who was present at the birth, and one of the only people who didn't freak out at the sight of them.
Almost at once, Aunt Lovey falls in love with these fragile and delicate young girls and together with her Canadian Slovakian husband, raises them on their bucolic and isolated farm, trying to give them as normal lives as possible. As they grow older, the girls are determined not to let their situation get the better of them, and are reasonably accepted by the townsfolk of Leaford.
Rose and Ruby are taught to be independent and they pour themselves into school and helping out around the farm. As adults, they obtain employment at the local library, shelving books and reading to school groups. Rose discovers she has a talent for writing - a straight A student she embarks on a novel about her life and is told by Aunt Lovey to write her story fearlessly, "not just as a conjoined twin but as a human being and as a woman."
Ruby develops an interest in local Indian archeology, a rather mediocre student she enjoys American sitcoms, but is plagued by chronic gastrointestinal troubles and, at times, severely restricts Rose, especially when she gets sick. The drama unfolds as the two girls race against time to complete their story: Aunt Lovey tells them that in adulthood, the tangled veins in their heads would likely give them trouble. And now at twenty-nine, and constantly plagued by headaches, an aneurysm in Rose's brain is threatening to kill them both.
Rose's intellectual diligence eventually pays off. The book is being written and with the odd passage or two from Rose, the true natures of these amazing girls come to life. It's an existence that is habitually fraught with heartache and longing, and with lives that have been at times isolated and strange, but it's also a life that is full of love, travel, work, and even sex.
Obviously Author Lori Lansens has great empathy for her characters and she has evidently well researched the lives of craniopagus twins. Full of ardor and purpose, the author's appeal for understanding and for public awareness is both trenchant and incisive. Bit by bit she steadily reveals Rose and Ruby's inner world, shedding back the layers and exposing all their hopes and dreams, fears and insecurities.
Rose especially learns the hard lesson that life isn't always fair and even less for a girl that is attached to her sister. The more fully formed and for the most part the healthier of the two; Rose often threatens to sink under the weight of wonder and the weight of worry, "humming some secret place into being." And the passages where she ponders what it might be like to be her own woman, this other girl the only that only she can see, are some of the most intensely evocative of the novel.
Although these girls deeply love each other - and are connected with an energy that is not only physical but also acutely spiritual - there's a real sense of longing for what it might have been like to live a life separate, where there's "a girl called She, who is not We, the girl who sadly Rose or Ruby will never be."
Lansens has written a deeply emotional novel, her heroines may be physically flawed, but in the end they are able to transcend the strictures of their bodies, ultimately emboldened by the creation of a very unique and exceptional life together. Mike Leonard June 06.