Summary: Faced with an impending arranged marriage within her Unity community, Celeste finds herself having doubts and falling for a boy named Jon instead. Spurred on by the stories of Tatianna, a girl taken in by the community while she gets back on her feet, and discouraged by her sister Nannette, a fervent believer in the way of the community who dreams of the day when she will become a sister wife, Celeste must decide for herself whether she will submit to becoming the multiple wife of an older man. Fearful of losing her family and hindered by strict religious life she has always known, Celeste’s unlikely friendship with a boy who builds inuksuik in the river opens her eyes and heart to new possibilities, helping her find the courage to choose something different.
Number of Pages: 269
Age Range: 15-17
Review: Told from the perspectives of three young women living in the Unity community, Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka explores the role of women in a polygamous community in a thoughtful, well-rounded manner.
Tatianna is an older teen adopted by Unity to rescue her from a life on the street selling her body. Taken in by Celeste’s and Nannette’s family, Tatianna finally has a place where she is secure and provided for. She forms loving relationships, makes friends and becomes an integral part of the household.
What she brings with her though is a knowledge of the outside world, and it bleeds into her contact with sheltered young girls raised in a strict religious environment. Nannette is the type that accepts life as it is, dreaming of the day when she will be married with sister wives and babies of her own. Celeste, on the other hand, is already questioning her situation and soaks in Tatianna’s stories.
Hrdlitschka covers several topics that are potential minefields in teen fiction through her book: teen prostitution, polygamy, underage marriage, and rape. Each girl’s story is unique and highlights various aspects of the community from the obvious abuses of power and male-centred society to the joy of living in community. Hrdlitschka is a talented storyteller because while I was sick over Celeste’s situation, forced to marry her love interest’s father, I found I was actually somewhat pleased Nannette married the same man.
I feel like I should explain myself before those reading this review think I’m pro-polygamy. What I appreciated about Sister Wife was how Hrdlitschka accurately portrayed how different people react to the same situation. Celeste and Nannette are sisters from the same mother and father, but for Celeste marriage is a descent into hopelessness, and for Nannette, it’s everything she ever wanted. While logically I knew both marriages were shady and coerced, having Nannette’s viewpoint was insightful because she was still happy.
At its heart, Hrdlitschka has written a story about an essential aspect of growing up, learning how to question one’s reality. For Celeste it comes in the form of pondering the true nature of spirituality and God, and for Nannette it’s about seeing the discrepancies and choosing to believe anyway. It’s an engaging read full of excellent character development and skillful dramatic tension. Hrdlitschka’s writing style is beautiful and full of insight.
“There is such a routine here, such a structured lifestyle, that I suppose a person doesn’t really need to think much about it at all. Conformity is what they strive for, not individuality. Everything is laid out, from what you’re expected to contribute right down to what you wear. Even your husband or wife is chosen for you. Maybe it’s not the thinking that is Celeste’s problem, but the questioning.” – Taviana from Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka, page 11
“How I’d love to share this moment with Jon. I know he’d agree with me that God is not in the religious ranting. He is not in the rules, or even in the sacred book. He is here, in the beauty of this divine morning. He is in the music of the birds, in the colors of the sky and even in the goose bumps on my arms. The realization of this makes me dizzy.
I hear the door creak open behind me. Swinging about, I find Pam there, looking as surprised to see me as I am to see her. I mover over on the step and pat the space beside me. She smiles shyly and joins me there without a word. We continue to gaze at the miracle in front of us, at the new day unfolding. For a rare moment I feel at peace.” – Celeste, from Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka, page 129
“Just as I knew he would, Father has ordered me to remain in the house. I have no problem with that. I have nowhere to go now anyway.
When he hauled me into his office after I returned from the beach, his anger was like a summer storm, a sudden crash of elements. The room was electrified by his fury, and I wanted to cower in a corner. But, unlike the aftermath of a summer storm, the air was not left freshened when it was over. It was full of tension, and the pain I felt was a physical ache, not because of the anger I caused my father but from the pain of losing Jon.” – Celeste from Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka, page 144
“‘So if a person doesn’t believe in God,’ I ask him, ‘what makes them behave?’
He considers that. ‘Their conscience. Do you only behave when you think someone is judging you?’
‘God is always judging me,’ I tell him, though I have to admit, I haven’t always behaved.
‘But just for the sake of argument, Celeste, imagine that He isn’t. Would you start doing unkind or bad things?’
‘I don’t know.’ The concept is just too strange for me. God has always been part of my life.
‘Celeste, I don’t believe you would. You’re a good, kind loving person, whether God is watching you or not.'” – Conversation between Celeste and Craig about the nature of belief in God from Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka, page 257