My Secret Sister is a true story, or perhaps it’s better to say two true stories. Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith grew up in the north of England about 6 miles from each other and neither of them had any idea they were a twin. Jenny was an adopted, only child with loving, even doting parents, while Helen grew up with an older step-brother, George, and parents who fought, goaded each other, and blamed everything on Helen — George was her only protector until he left home and she had to fend for herself against the abuse and neglect of a cold, manipulative mother, and the bullying tyrannical rule of a stepfather who could not control his temper.
It was Jenny who was totally surprised not too long after the death of her father when a cousin told her in anger to butt out of an argument between herself and her sisters because she “[wasn’t] even part of the family”; that was how she discovered she was adopted. Her adoptive mother didn’t want to talk about it at all, and while Jenny was devastated and determined to find out “who she really was”, out of deference to her mother, she waited until after her death to begin the process of finding out who her real mother was and to learn if she had any siblings, and possibly why she had been given up.
Mercia was a real looker in her younger years and enjoyed flirting. With her husband away at war and herself working in a war effort factory, she soon found herself in trouble. More than once, as it turns out. When Jenny finally gets a name and address to track down, she finds an aunt who is happy to see her and talk with her. She even phones Mercia who, again, wants nothing to do with Jenny, and so Jenny leaves almost empty-handed — her new-found Aunt Dorrie gives her a picture of Mercia, her mother, and a picture of two children Jenny’s told are her brother and sister. It’s a beginning.
When Jenny finally tracks down her sister, it is more than devastating for Helen. It turns out the whole family knew except her, and there are even more lies and secrets waiting around the corner for the two ladies, by now in their 60s. Two totally different upbringings but two totally similar women who finally feel complete.
This story is nothing short of amazing and throughout the book, the women take turns telling their stories: the early years — the love and indulgence for one, the trauma and emptiness for the other — their careers, their family life, and the niggling feeling that something was missing, just out of reach. Both women travel — Helen to South Africa for a time with her family and eventually to the US to visit her brother; Jenny to the USA to play professional golf and win many tournaments. Marriage, a family, divorce, and remarriage for Helen; marriage and a family for Jenny. But there are even more discoveries awaiting them.
This story is well told — written with the assistance of Jacquie Buttris. It’s told chronologically, alternating back and forth between the two women, and the contrast of their lives is harshly apparent. I was disappointed to learn that the picture of the little girl on the cover was a model; there are real pictures inside that were interesting to see. At times, I became a bit tired of repetitive rhetoric in the sad telling of Helen’s story, felt she was whining a bit, which is perhaps indicative of her strict and debilitating circumstances. I felt it took a long time to get to the discovery of their connection — which was the case — but I felt we could have got there faster. Maybe it was just the anticipation of the point of the book. Certainly the last part of the book, where the ladies were trying to cope with their new knowledge and lost opportunities, was the most powerful part of the story and made the book well worth reading. You can learn more from Helen & Jenny’s website. * * *