Reviewer: Sharon Brunner
Karen Dionne’s “The Wicked Sister” is a novel filled with suspense and murder nestled in a wilderness setting with no phone service. The first chapter begins with Rachel envisioning a scene with her holding a rifle and killing someone she loved, and part of the story appears to be in present-day while the other part of the story occurrsapproximately 20 years earlier. Dionne alternates between the past and present with four main characters, Rachel, Diana and their parents Jenny and Peter. Jenny convinced her husband Peter to move to a wilderness setting because of their daughter, Diana. When Diana was a young child, she may have killed a toddler, a neighborhood child. Jenny had her suspicions. Dr. Merritt diagnosed Diana as a psychopath, a person without a conscious. Dionne described the situation clearly in which family members became afraid of a disturbed individual, and that individual’s stranglehold on the dynamics of the family. Jenny’s motherly instinct and Diana’s art of manipulation put Rachel, Diana’s younger sister, in serious danger.
One of the common themes in the book was a mother’s unconditional love of her child no matter what her child did. Jenny tried to excuse even the most unacceptable behaviors. Another theme was Rachel questioning her ability to trust herself. Since she was in a mental health institution from the time she was 11 years old, she appeared to suffer from institutionalization in which she relied on the staff to take care of her needs. She spent 15 years at the institution and as a result had difficulty making her own decisions. Many chapters ended in cliffhangers pushing me to turn the page to find out what was going to happen. The book was laced with intense moments. Another theme described well in the book was the importance of nature and all wildlife and how we can coexist with nature in a respectful manner.
I liked how clearly Dionne described Diana’s pathology and how some of the people in her life fell prey to her manipulation. I was taken into Rachel’s and Jenny’s world and could relate to their pain and frustration. After resenting her long stay at the mental health institution, Rachel realized how strong the experience made her. I liked how some of the characters were introduced such as White Bear. He became a loveable character and Dionne created a sense of loss when he was shot.
Three books and a television series came to mind when I read the book. The first was Steve Hamilton’s “Misery” with the isolation and scariness of the plot. The other book was Mikel Classen’s book “True Tales: The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.” Some of the characters described in Classen’s book were as callous and evil as Diana was described in Dionne’s book. Two disturbed people abducted, tortured and forced young women do horrible things. The women were held prisoner. Dionne’s book “The Marsh King’s Daughter” followed the same format and was recognized as one of the best thrillers of 2017. Some of the Criminal Minds’ episodes came to mind with the sick games Diana played. Especially when Rachel was locked in a cage.
At one point in my life, I was terrified when a stalker would not leave me alone and I never knew where he was going show up next. One of the scariest times was when he was waiting for me in his car with another man at night in a parking lot and I was by myself. I could hear my heartbeat. I did manage to get in my car, lock the doors and take off in a hurry. It was not difficult to imagine the horror Rachel felt when she was hiding from the murderous duo.
As mentioned earlier, as a result of her parents’ deaths, Rachel spent time at a mental health institution located in Newberry, Michigan. Most of the novel took place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.) and Dionne introduced readers to the harsh winters and wildlife of such a rural area. She set up a homestead with her husband in St. Ignace, Michigan in 1974, as part of her back-to-the-land movement. Her love of the U.P. was evident throughout the book. She described the purpose of Oswald’s Bear Ranch which was located near Newberry. Marquette was one of the cities Jenny and Peter visited often. Marquette served as the location where they met with Diana’s counselor and where Peter sought employment.
Dionne displayed her love of the outdoors and wildlife throughout the book. She went into detail about the beliefs instilled throughout the world about ravens, particularly on page 108. For example: “Native Americans worshipped ravens as the creator of Earth, moon, sun and stars, but they also viewed them as tricksters and cheats, though I’ve never had a problem with them.” This was thought by Rachel. She had a relationship with bears and ravens, and they saved her life on several occasions.
In order to appease Diana, Jenny and Peter permitted her to practice taxidermy after finding animals cut up and left to rot. Other examples of Diana’s severe psychological disorder included when Diana was caught by Jenny as she tried to kill Rachel on multiple occasions and Jenny’s unborn son dying as a result of Diana’s actions. Jenny and Peter refused to see Diana for who she really was until it was too late.
Meanwhile, Charlotte, Jenny’s sister came to live with them. She was assigned the role of watching over Rachel. Jenny made the mistake of not informing Charlotte of Diana’s mental health diagnosis. Charlotte became one of Diana’s steadfast allies. Max worked for Peter and Jenny and Charlotte and Max planned on getting married. Jenny caught Max and Charlotte in the act of disobeying Jenny’s request to keep Rachel safe. Charlotte found out what happened to Max which created a problem between her and Diana.
Rachel was released from the institution when she was approximately 26 years old and discovered Charlotte and Diana at her childhood home. Up to the point of her release, Rachel could not recall what actually happened to her parents. She thought she was responsible. A raven told her the truth would be revealed to her. Rachel was flooded with all the memories of her parent’s death, the death of a dear friend and of another individual when she arrived at her childhood home. All at the hand of Diana except for one death. Again, her life was in danger. Her sister wanted to kill her or lock her up for good. Rachel’s strength became evident while she tried to stay alive with a friend who came to her aid. Another theme that revealed itself throughout the book concerned Rachel’s empathy. She put her friend’s life before her own, she cared about wildlife, and she looked after a friend’s brother.
Dionne created an excellent novel of murder and a level of insanity that was chilling to the bone. The book was definitely a page-turner. Rachel, Jenny, and Peter were endearing characters who wanted to live a normal life. They were prevented from experiencing peace because of Diana’s dark persona. It was difficult to understand why Diana’s parents felt the way they did and why it took so long for them to realize how dangerous Diana was. People, who were diagnosed as psychopaths, have been known to be very manipulating and many intense situations occurred due to Diana’s pathology. I recommend “The Wicked Sister” for the suspense, the love of nature, the depth of extreme pathology, and the resiliency and strength of some of the main characters.
Title: The Wicked Sister
Author: Karen Dionne