Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Prologue

December 1811

New Madrid, Louisiana Territory

The first earthquake wasn’t the strongest—that would come later, in February 1812—but it must have been the most astonishing. It occurred shortly after two in the morning, and I imagine it awakening the people of New Madrid: the farmers and fur traders, the French Creoles and Indians and American pioneers. More men than women lived in the river town, and few families; the population was probably less than a thousand. The people were lying in their beds on this cold and ordinary night when without warning a tremendous cracking sound interrupted the quiet, a growing thunder, followed by the impossible fact of the quake itself: the rocking not just of their beds or floors or houses but of the land beneath them. Whether they stayed inside or hurried out, they’d have heard their animals crying, heard trees snapping, the Mississippi roaring up; so much fog and smoke filled the darkness that they would have felt the roll of the earth before they realized they could see it, too, undulating like the ocean. In some places, the ground split apart and flung up water, sand, and rocks, entire trees it had swallowed shortly before, and in turn it devoured horses and cows. Rising out of the cracks and holes was the smell of sulfur, like the wicked breath of the devil emanating from deep underground.

For hours, the convulsions didn’t stop, and when eventually their bewildering rhythm changed, it was not to decrease but to intensify: Twice more, at seven in the morning and again at eleven, the earth exploded anew. And daybreak had not brought light. Still there was the chaos of vapors, the bleats and squawks of domesticated and wild animals, the collapsing trees and spewing land and mercilessly teeming river.

Only around noon did the earth settle, and only gradually. But what was left? The people’s homes—one-story log or frame structures—were leveled, as were the town’s stores and churches. The land was broken, the river roiling. The banks of the Mississippi had simply plunged into the water below, carrying with them houses, graveyards, and forests; canoes and keelboats had vanished under thirty-foot waves, reappeared, and vanished again.

Though it must have seemed, on the afternoon of December 16, 1811, that the world was ending, more destruction would follow. In this same remote area, another powerful quake occurred on January 23, 1812, and two weeks later, on February 7, the last and biggest. In just months, whole towns disappeared not only from the Louisiana Territory—soon to become the Territory of Missouri—but also from the Mississippi Territory and Tennessee. People claimed that the Mississippi River ran backward and that the effects of the quakes were felt hundreds of miles away: that clocks stopped in Natchez, chimneys collapsed in Louisville, and church bells rang in Boston.

But perhaps these myths were merely that, embellishments more irresistible than accurate. Magnitude scales wouldn’t exist for another century, so calculations of the New Madrid quakes came long afterward, and though the highest estimates placed them above 8.0—stronger than the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the strongest of any continental earthquake in United States history—other guesses were closer to a magnitude 7. Which would have made them frightening, certainly, but not unprecedented.

My husband would say that such distinctions matter, that there are ways of conducting research and establishing hypotheses based on credible evidence. My sister would disagree. She would say that we create our own reality—that the truth, ultimately, is what we choose to believe.

Chapter 1

September 2009

St. Louis, Missouri

The shaking started around three in the morning, and it happened that I was already awake because I’d nursed Owen at two and then, instead of going back to sleep, I’d lain there brooding about the fight I’d had at lunch with my sister, Vi. I’d driven with Owen and Rosie in the backseat to pick up Vi, and the four of us had gone to Hacienda. We’d finished eating and I was collecting Rosie’s stray food from the tabletop—once I had imagined I wouldn’t be the kind of mother who ordered chicken tenders for her child off the menu at a Mexican restaurant—when Vi said, “So I have a date tomorrow.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Who is it?”

Casually, after running the tip of her tongue over her top teeth to check for food, Vi said, “She’s an IT consultant, which sounds boring, but she’s traveled a lot in South and Central America, so she couldn’t be a total snooze, right?”

I was being baited, but I tried to match Vi’s casual tone as I said, “Did you meet online?” Rosie, who was two and a half, had gotten up from the table, wandered over to a ficus plant in the corner, and was smelling the leaves. Beside me in the booth, buckled into his car seat, Owen, who was six months, grabbed at a little plush giraffe that hung from the car seat’s handle.