The Girls

A Novel


By Lori Lansens

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Meet Rose and Ruby: sisters, best friends, confidantes, and conjoined twins. Since their birth, Rose and Ruby Darlen have been known simply as “the girls.” They make friends, fall in love, have jobs, love their parents, and follow their dreams. But the Darlens are special. Now nearing their 30th birthday, they are history’s oldest craniopagus twins, joined at the head by as pot the size of a bread plate.

When Rose, the bookish sister, sets out to write her autobiography, it inevitably becomes the story of her short but extraordinary life with Ruby, the beautiful one. From their awkward first steps — Ruby’s arm curled around Rose’s neck, her foreshortened legs wrapped around Rose’s hips — to the friendships they gradually build for themselves in the small town of Leaford, this is the profoundly affecting chronicle of an incomparable life journey.

As Rose and Ruby’s story builds to an unforgettable conclusion, Lansens aims at the heart of human experience — the hardship of loss and struggles for independence, and the fundamental joy of simply living a life. This is a breathtaking novel, one that no reader will soon forget, a heartrending story of love between sisters.



Rush Home Road

Ruby & Me

I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.

My sister, Ruby, and I, by mishap or miracle, having intended to divide from a single fertilized egg, remained joined instead, by a spot the size of a bread plate on the sides of our twin heads. We're known to the world medical community as the oldest surviving craniopagus twins (we are twenty-nine years old) and to millions around the globe, those whose interest in people like us is more than just passing, as conjoined craniopagus twins Rose and Ruby Darlen of Baldoon County. We've been called many things: freaks, horrors, monsters, devils, witches, retards, wonders, marvels. To most, we're a curiosity. In small-town Leaford, where we live and work, we're just "The Girls."

Raise your right hand. Press the base of your palm to the lobe of your right ear. Cover your ear and fan out your fingers—that's where my sister and I are affixed, our faces not quite side by side, our skulls fused together in a circular pattern running up the temple and curving around the frontal lobe. If you glance at us, you might think we're two women embracing, leaning against the other tête-à-tête, the way sisters do.

Ruby and I are identical twins and would be identical looking, having high foreheads like our mother and wide, full mouths, except that Ruby's face is arranged quite nicely (in fact, Ruby is very beautiful), whereas my features are misshapen and frankly grotesque. My right eye slants steeply toward the place my right ear would have been if my sister's head had not grown there instead. My nose is longer than Ruby's, one nostril wider than the other, pulled to the right of my brown slanted eye. My lower jaw shifts to the left, slurring my speech and giving a husky quality to my voice. Patches of eczema rouge my cheeks, while Ruby's complexion is fair and flawless. Our scalps marry in the middle of our conjoined heads, but my frizzy hair has a glint of auburn, while my sister is a swingy brunette. Ruby has a deep cleft in her chin, which people find endearing.

I'm five feet five inches tall. When we were born, my limbs were symmetrical, in proportion to my body. Presently, my right leg is a full three inches shorter than my left, my spine compressed, my right hip cocked, and all because I have carried my sister like an infant since I was a baby myself, Ruby's tiny thighs astride my hip, my arm supporting her posterior, her arm forever around my neck. Ruby is my sister. And strangely, undeniably, my child.

There is some discomfort in our conjoinment. Ruby and I experience mild to severe neck, jaw, and shoulder pain, for which we take physiotherapy three times a week. The strain on my body is constant, as I bear Ruby's weight, as I tote Ruby on my hip, as I struggle to turn Ruby over in our bed or perch on my stool beside the toilet for what seems like hours. (Ruby has a multitude of bowel and urinary tract problems.) We are challenged, certainly, and uncomfortable, sometimes, but neither Ruby nor I would describe our conjoinment as painful.

It's difficult to explain our locomotion as conjoined twins or how it developed from birth using grunts and gestures and what I suppose must be telepathy. There are days when, like a normal person, we're clumsy and uncoordinated. We have less natural symbiosis when one of us (usually Ruby) is sick, but mostly our dance is a smooth one. We hate doing things in unison, such as answering yes or no at the same time. We never finish each other's sentences. We can't shake our heads at once or nod (and wouldn't if we could—see above). We have an unspoken, even unconscious, system of checks and balances to determine who'll lead the way at any given moment. There is conflict. There is compromise.

Ruby and I share a common blood supply. My blood flows normally in the left side of my brain, but the blood in my right (the connected side) flows to my sister's left, and vice versa for her. It's estimated that we share a web of one hundred veins as well as our skull bones. Our cerebral tissue is fully enmeshed, our vascular systems snarled like briar bushes, but our brains themselves are separate and functioning. Our thoughts are distinctly our own. Our selves have struggled fiercely to be unique, and in fact we're more different than most identical twins. I like sports, but I'm also bookish, while Ruby is girlie and prefers television. When Ruby is tired, I'm hardly ever ready for bed. We're rarely hungry together and our tastes are poles apart: I prefer spicy fare, while my sister has a disturbing fondness for eggs.

Ruby believes in God and ghosts and reincarnation. (Ruby won't speculate on her next incarnation though, as if imagining something different from what she is now would betray us both.) I believe the best the dead can hope for is to be conjured from time to time, through a note of haunting music or a passage in a book.

I've never set eyes on my sister, except in mirror images and photographs, but I know Ruby's gestures as my own, through the movement of her muscles and bone. I love my sister as I love myself. I hate her that way too.

This is the story of my life. I'm calling it Autobiography of a Conjoined Twin. But since my sister claims that it can't technically ("technically" is Ruby's current favorite word) be considered an autobiography and is opposed to my telling what she considers our story, I have agreed that she should write some chapters from her point of view. I will strive to tell my story honestly, allowing that my truth will be colored a shade different from my sister's and acknowledging that it's sometimes necessary for the writer to connect the dots.

What I know about writing I've learned mostly from reading books and from Aunt Lovey, who, along with Uncle Stash (born Stanislaus Darlensky in Grozovo, Slovakia, in 1924), raised Ruby and me from birth. I was accepted into the English program at a nearby university, but Ruby wouldn't agree to go. I knew she'd refuse, but I'd applied to the school anyway, so I could be aggrieved and excused. With Ruby sulking at my side, I'd handed the acceptance letter to Aunt Lovey. "How can I ever be a writer if I don't study writing? How can I be a writer if I don't even have a degree?" I cried.

Aunt Lovey hated self-pity. "Don't blame your sister if you don't become a writer. I don't know how pistons piss, but I can sure as hell drive a car." She gave me a look and strode away.

The next day Aunt Lovey presented me with a book called Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster. She wrapped it in leftover Christmas paper and taped a daisy from the garden to the top, even though it was a library book, due back in two weeks. Then she drove me to the Kmart to purchase a ten-pack of pencils and a stack of yellow legal pads. Ruby threw up out the car window when we pulled into the parking lot, somewhat ruining the excursion. As Aunt Lovey cleaned the side of the Impala, I opened Aspects of the Novel to a random page and read aloud from a long, tedious paragraph on the subject of death and the treatment of death in the novel. Aunt Lovey beamed at me as though I'd written the passage myself. Ruby groaned, but I don't know if it was illness or envy.

From the very beginning, Ruby hated my writing. She didn't see the point of my character sketches and accused me of cheating when my poems didn't rhyme. One time, after reading one of my short stories, she asked me, "Who are you writing this for anyway, Rose?" I was stung. Because I didn't know. And thought I should. My love of reading has distanced my sister and me. Ruby has never enjoyed books, unless you count children's books and the Hollywood magazines she drools over in doctors' waiting rooms.

I inherited my love of books from Aunt Lovey, though I like to think my birth mother was bookish too. Aunt Lovey was seldom without a book in her hands or one splayed on the arm of her brown vinyl La-Z-Boy in the den. She made the sunporch beside the pantry at the back of the old farmhouse where we grew up into a storage room filled with books. We called the room "the library," though there wasn't a bookcase in sight—just stacks and stacks of paperbacks, 784 in all, keeping the cold in the plaster-and-lath walls. When Aunt Lovey died, we donated her books to the Leaford Library, which happens to be where we are currently employed. I sort and shelve, and Ruby reads to school groups, though obviously not at the same time. (In case you're wondering, we are each paid a salary for our individual hours worked.) Aunt Lovey used to tell me that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed a writer's voice. "Read," she'd say, "and if you have a writer's voice, one day it will shout out, 'I can do that too!'"

My voice did shout out, but I'm not sure it said, "I can do that too." I don't ever recall being that confident. I think my voice said, "I must do that too." When I was in eighth grade, one of my poems, called "Lawrence," was selected for the yearbook's Poetry Corner. I submitted the poem anonymously, pleased to know that when the yearbook staff chose it, it wasn't out of pity for one of The Girls. After "Lawrence" was published (even if I was just a kid, and it was only the yearbook), I announced (at fourteen years old) that my next work would be an autobiography. Aunt Lovey snapped her fingers and said, "Call it Two for One. Wouldn't that be cute? Or Double Duty."

I've sent sixty-seven short stories out for review (one has been published in Prairie Fire) and several hundred poems (eleven published in the Leaford Mirror, one in the Wascana Review, and a fifth of one—don't ask—in Fiddlehead). I've been composing this autobiography in my mind for fifteen years, but these are the first words I've put down. If someone asks how long it took to write, I won't know how to answer.

MY SISTER AND I knew from early on that we were rare and unusual, although I can't recall any single moment of clarity, as in "Ahh," she thought, "not all people are attached to their siblings." I do remember a struggle. We must have been around three years old—I've played it over and over in my head.

It goes like this. . . . There are the burnt-orange fibers of the shag carpet in the den at the old farmhouse. My small hand disappears completely in the thick deep pile. The room smells of Lysol and Aunt Lovey's lavender powder. Aunt Lovey has placed Ruby and me in the middle of the room. I'm sitting on my bottom. Ruby is clinging to me, alternately balancing herself on her curious little legs and wrapping them around my waist as I shift to accommodate her weight. Ruby is forever beside me. I understand that I am me, but that I am also we.

Aunt Lovey wades through the carpet in her worn pink house slippers and places a Baby Tenderlove doll on the other side of the playroom in front of the silver radiator. Baby Tenderlove is mine. Aunt Lovey gave her to me in the morning when she gave Ruby her Kitty Talks a Little. She let us play with the dolls for a few minutes, then took them away. Aunt Lovey was deaf to our sobs. Here's the doll again. Only she's so far away. I lift my arms. And stretch. I know I can't reach the baby doll this way, but this is my language. It means "I want it." I kick my feet and cry. I see Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash watching from the doorway. Aunt Lovey says, "Go on, Rosie. You go get your baby. You go get your baby doll." I look into Uncle Stash's eyes. Please. Please, Uncle Stash. Please. He's a pushover for Ruby and me. He starts forward to get my baby doll, but Aunt Lovey holds him back. I scream again. And kick the floor. Ruby whimpers, frustrated and annoyed and wondering what became of her doll. I kick the floor again, bumping myself up and down in protest, and suddenly, without intending to, I move forward. I pause. I bump up and down again. Nothing. I kick and bump at the same time. I move forward. I stop crying and kick and bump again. I grip my sister around the waist and kick and bump, and bump and kick, and drag her along with me. We advance. Refining my alignment and the rhythm of my kick and bump, using my free hand to push, I go faster and faster across the fuzzy orange carpet. Ruby squeals in protest, her legs gripping my middle, her arm yanking my neck, tugging me back because she's not ready for this. But I'm ready. I reach the doll.

The next day, Aunt Lovey placed us in the middle of the floor again. This time she didn't put my Baby Tenderlove doll in front of the silver radiator but Ruby's Kitty Talks a Little. And it was Ruby's turn to learn how to get what she wanted. Ruby's challenge was greater than mine, though. According to Aunt Lovey, it took Ruby six months to coax me across the room. Some time after that, Aunt Lovey put my doll and Ruby's doll at separate ends of the room. A casual observer might have thought she was being cruel, but Aunt Lovey wanted more for us than just survival.

When Ruby and I were nine years old, Aunt Lovey drove us to the Leaford Library to look for books about our condition. (What books did she think we would find there? Welcome to the Wonderful World of Craniopagy?) Ruby had, and still has, severe motion sickness. She doesn't always tolerate antinausea medication, and more than half the time we travel, even short trips, she gets sick. Sometimes very sick. Ruby's motion sickness has further limited our already profoundly restricted lives. My travel bags, even for day trips, contain several changes of clothes for us both. Under most of my travel memories is the shaker-cheese smell of Ruby's breath.

On the way to the Leaford Library, Ruby threw up twice, and by the time we arrived I was wearing the last of my clean clothes. Even though it was normal for my sister to be carsick, I knew that it was more than Aunt Lovey's driving. (The next day Ruby was covered in chicken pox, which I, incidentally, did not get.)

Aunt Lovey had been disappointed to find that there were no books about cranial conjoinment, or any kind of conjoinment, in the children's section upstairs. On our way to the elevator she stopped to tell the older woman at the desk that Leaford Library needed to look at its children's collection and include a book or two about birth defects and whatnot. "Especially," she'd added, "since you have a set of craniopagus twins living right here in your own community."

The old woman, whose name tag said ROZ and who was wearing a young woman's purple angora sweater, stared at me and my sister. Like most of Baldoon County, she'd only heard of the rare conjoined twins. She seemed less astonished than most people on first meeting Ruby and me. Maybe it was because she knew someone not similarly, but equally, exceptional. She agreed that the children of Leaford needed to be enlightened, and then she escorted us to the elevator. I felt Ruby go limp on the quick ride down and I knew that she'd fallen asleep. I could feel the heat from her fever and considered informing Aunt Lovey that we should go home, but the old woman in the angora sweater had directed us to a book of photographs (from the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia) on one of the high shelves in the adult section. I could not leave without looking inside.

On the front of the huge book was a daguerreotype of Chang and Eng Bunker, twins from old Siam, the original Siamese twins who were famous for doing circus acrobatics while being joined at the chest. After entertaining the courts of Europe, the brothers settled in North Carolina in the mid-1800s, married nontwin sisters, and fathered a total of twenty-one children! (This is absolutely true.) In the photograph the twins look distinguished, wearing identical dark suits tailored to cover the band of flesh that bound them at the thorax. They lived to be sixty-three years old. Chang died in the night of a ruptured spleen. His brother's parting words are said to be, "I'll go now too."

Aunt Lovey carried that big picture book, and a few smaller books, to a large quiet table at the back of the reading area. Ruby's sleeping body was heavy. Hot. I settled down carefully on a narrow bench and held my breath as Aunt Lovey's freckled hand (you would never have known by looking at her that my Aunt Lovey had Native Indian blood) opened the book. The first photograph, in black and white, was a graphic shot of a severely deformed human skeleton. Aunt Lovey read the small print out loud—"Skeleton of a seven-month-old fetus with spina bifida and anencephaly"—before she cleared her throat and turned the page. On the next page was a photograph of a nude woman, surprising not because of her white nakedness but because of a curvature of the spine that caused her to bend sharply at the middle, like a walking letter r. I asked Aunt Lovey to read the small print on that page, but she turned it instead. The next photograph was of a middle-aged man dressed in a starched white shirt and cravat. An enormous plum-colored tumor appeared to have frightened the man's right eye into his forehead and chased the nose off the center of his face. I would have liked to linger on the photo, but Aunt Lovey turned the page. There, on the next page, against a velvet background, incredibly and spectacularly, were the pickled remains of infant craniopagus twins, joined not at the side of the head, like Ruby and me, but at the back of the head, so that one looked forward and one behind. The babies were afloat in a massive glass jar, eyes wide, mouths open, a tooth bud visible in the larger one's lower gums. Back to back. Bum to bum. Flotsam in fluid. Tiny elements of metal visible here and there. The babies had been posed before being sunken in the jar. They were holding hands. A sob rushed out of Ruby's throat and startled me because I hadn't felt her wake. Aunt Lovey slammed the book shut. Her cheeks were scarlet. She rose to return the book to the shelf.

Ruby sniffed into the plaid handkerchief she kept, as old ladies do, tucked up in her sleeve. I opened a small red book with no pictures and read a story that haunts me, like music. The story of Minnie and Marie. Minnie and Marie were born joined at the chest (that would be a thorapagus conjoinment) in Wales in 1959. The combined weight of the girls at birth was only seven pounds. By the time they were eighteen months old, they'd spent more time in the hospital than out. Minnie and Marie were physically beautiful babies with porcelain complexions and thick black curls, and they laughed more than they cried. The babies embraced and kissed each other often, but they also fought viciously and sometimes had to be restrained by the nurses. They were slow developing language skills but communicated easily with each other. For some reason, they each called the other "Marie," which they pronounced "Me." Their adoring nurses and doctors called both babies "Me" too. Minnie and Marie were normal in all aspects except that they shared one heart, which began to fail as they neared their second birthday.

Specialists were brought in on the case, thoracic and vascular and cardiac surgeons, all of whom proposed sacrificing the sicklier baby, Marie, and giving the shared heart to the stronger twin, Minnie. Their mother, panicked by the ticking clock and the doctors' insistence that both girls would die if something wasn't done, agreed to the surgery. She kissed baby Marie good-bye forever while she prayed that the shared heart would work in baby Minnie. The heart did work in Minnie, better than the doctors had dared hope. When little Minnie opened her eyes a few days following the surgery, the roomful of doctors and nurses erupted with applause. The baby clapped too, then reached out to embrace her sister, frightened and confused to find her twin gone. Minnie searched the room for the face of Marie. "Me?" she whispered. The doctors and nurses fell silent. The baby looked around again. "Me?" she begged. "Me?" Then she looked down and, suddenly, seemed to understand that her sister had been amputated from her chest. "Hurts," she whimpered, touching the white bandages. She found the eyes of her mother, who by this time was awash in tears. "Me," Minnie said once more, then closed her eyes and died too.

AUNT LOVEY TOLD me way back then to write my story fearlessly, a little how it is, a little how I wish it could be, not just as a conjoined twin but as a human being and a woman, and all these years later, that's what I'm going to do. "Write," she said, "as if you'll never be read. That way you'll be sure to tell the truth." But I do want to be read. I want to share this true story of my life—with you.

Mother's Nature

A tornado touched down in Baldoon County on the day Ruby and I were born. According to eyewitness accounts, after hovering over twenty acres of seed corn near Jeanette's Creek, the fury suddenly drove to the earth, plucked four-year-old Larry Merkel and his blue bike from his gravel driveway, and, cutting a swath through the seed corn and sugar beets, stole south toward the lake with its trophy. The tornado never reached the lake but veered sharply at Cadot's Corners as if just having remembered the way. There were sightings in three more townships, then nothing. The Merkel boy was lost, but his blue bike was found on the roof of a house three concessions over, more or less intact.

The little bike, with its slightly bent front frame, once sat behind a rope in the Leaford Museum, flanked to the left by a display of antique farming implements and to the right by a congregation of monarch butterflies straight-pinned to cork. The museum was across the road from our farmhouse on Rural Route One, so Ruby and I were frequent visitors. We knew the exhibits well, and Ruby even became a valuable contributor. In addition to the butterflies, there were cases of musket shot from the War of 1812, and a tobacco pouch said to have belonged to the great Chief Tecumseh. What began as a small display of Neutral Indian artifacts grew, as each year my sister searched for and found dozens more objects in the fields around our home. Across from the Indian exhibit in the Leaford Museum were two larger-than-life photographs of my sister and me, taken when we were three and a half years old.

I loved listening to our Aunt Lovey, or sometimes Uncle Stash, read the handwritten signs describing Leaford's riches and rarities. Beneath our picture the placard read: "Rose and Ruby Darlen. Born joined at the head on the day of the tornado—July 30, 1974—at St. Jude's Hospital, Leaford. Rose and Ruby are one of the rarest forms of conjoined twins—craniopagus. They share an essential vein and can never be separated. In spite of their situation, the girls enjoy a normal and productive life here in Leaford. Picture taken by Stash Darlen, the girls' uncle." (Aunt Lovey told me they'd originally used the word "predicament" to describe our conjoinment. She'd made them change it to "situation.") Beneath Larry Merkel's bent blue bike the placard read: "Child's bike. Found on Don Charboneau's roof after the tornado, July 30, 1974. The tornado devastated Baldoon and the surrounding counties, wounding dozens of people and killing two. Property damage was estimated at over $300,000. Ninety-mile-an-hour winds carried this child's bike almost four miles." The dead boy (whose body was never found) was not named. And there was no mention of his poor grieving mother.

St. Jude's Hospital, the place where we were born, was not equipped for disaster, and the staff didn't know where to start after the tornado had come and gone and taken Larry Merkel with it. Most of the injured were seasonal workers from the Caribbean, and many of them had been stranded in the field, unwisely seeking shelter in a derelict barn when the wind began to wail. There were eighteen rooms in the squat brown medical building, and by four-thirty in the afternoon, a half an hour after the tornado hit, all the rooms were occupied. Several dozen bruised and bleeding men were crammed into the musty waiting room, a few more spilling out onto the slippery floor in the hall. The less serious cases waited outside, smoking and joking in their island patois, glad for the excuse to be away from the farm. Pale and white-haired Cathy Merkel, mother of little lost Larry, walked among the wounded, searching the halls for her swept-away son, standing shocked and still from time to time, like one of the lengths of birch scattered across the township.

I should stop here and make it clear that all I know of the details of the tornado, and of our birth, was told to me by Aunt Lovey, who was "Nurse Darlen" to her coworkers at St. Jude's Hospital and everything to Ruby and me. Aunt Lovey was in attendance when we were born, benignly plump back then, her mop of curls more blond than gray, her freckled face hardly lined. You might have guessed she was forty. She was fifty-two.

My recollections of Aunt Lovey's recollections of our birth will differ, of course, the story having been combed by my memory and set by imagination. And my sister's recollections of Aunt Lovey's recollections of our birth, or her own memories of any of the things that have happened in our lives, are very different from mine.

Back to our story: Aunt Lovey said that on the day of the tornado, Dr. Richard Ruttle Jr., on seeing his hospital crowded with injured migrant workers, called his elderly doctor-father, Dr. Richard Ruttle Sr., out of retirement to help. Nurses from several neighboring communities appeared with boxes of supplies, and a few Catholic League ladies brought food: mushroom soup casserole, Kraft slices on white bread, chicken salad with celery chunks, and Cocoa Krispies from the fridge.

Aunt Lovey was paged on the intercom. There was a call from Uncle Stash, but she couldn't take the phone. The message had been scribbled by a harried staffer in blotchy blue pen on the back of a Kentucky Fried Chicken napkin. It said simply, "You." Uncle Stash was in Ohio visiting his elderly mother and had missed the bad weather altogether. He'd heard about the storm and called St. Jude's, relieved to learn that his wife was unharmed. "Please, just to tell my wife, 'You,'" he'd said in his thick Slovak accent, then spelled it y-o-u, when the staffer thought she'd misheard. "You." It's what Uncle Stash and Aunt Lovey said to each other, perfect in its singularity, throughout their whole married life. It meant "I love you," and other such powerful clichés. You are everything to me. I've been so worried about you. I'd die if anything happened to you. I'm sorry if I've hurt you. You have made my life. Uncle Stash also called Aunt Lovey "moja mila," which means "my darling" in Slovak. Aunt Lovey would laugh and say, "I'm everyone's darlin', Darlen." She said you had to have a sense of humor about names when you were born with the name "Lovonia Tremblay," then married to become "Lovey Darlen." Being a craniopagus twin, I understood what she meant about needing a sense of humor.

After tucking the napkin with its precious blue code into the cleavage of her damp brassiere, Aunt Lovey took a moment to wonder at the chaos around her. She'd scratched her blond head, feeling ridiculous for the gesture, thinking that Leaford hadn't seen a tornado in more than forty years, and never one as vicious as this. When the public alarm siren behind the water tower in the park by the Thames River sounded off, Aunt Lovey just assumed (though she knew, of course, that our country was not at war) that Leaford was being bombed. She'd been shocked by news of the tornado and perversely disappointed not to have felt the lash of the killer storm more directly.

Aunt Lovey felt the napkin shift in her brassiere. Then a pregnant patient lurched through the Emergency Room doors. And the electricity went out.


On Sale
May 2, 2006
Page Count
368 pages

Lori Lansens

About the Author

Lori Lansens has written several films and is the author of the novel Rush Home Road. The Girls is her second book. She lives in Toronto.

Learn more about this author