We first meet Emmitt Highland following the death of his 16-year-old twin sister, Minnie, who was struck by a car. Emmitt is looking for a way to cheer up his severely depressed mother. In the hopes of proving his sister’s spirit lives on, he sets out to make a film about the people who have received Minnie’s donated organs.
Ottawa author Michael F. Stewart (Ray vs. the Meaning of Life) has chosen a difficult subject for his novel and constructed a tale that is alternately heartbreaking and mischievous, sometimes creepy, and ultimately triumphant.
The bulk of Heart Sister forms a unique detective story as Emmitt surreptitiously locates the organ recipients, whose identities are supposed to remain secret. Helping Emmitt in his search is a new friend, Dennis, who has Minnie’s pancreas and one of her kidneys. In one inventive scene, Emmitt poses as a hospital clown to get close to the young patient who’s received Minnie’s heart.
Not all of Minnie’s organ recipients are immediately loveable. They include a military sniper, a racist, and an alcoholic. Initially, Emmitt feels these people do not deserve Minnie’s gift of life. But he learns to acknowledge their differences and comes to see how helping others can sometimes inspire them to do better, get sober, or overcome despair. Less intriguing are the descriptions of scenes from Emmitt’s weird and perplexing film, in which the recipients discuss what animals they would like to be.
Heart Sister is never glum, despite the omnipresence of death and illness. Stewart provides plenty of laughs with his eccentric – and multicultural – cast of characters. Even Minnie is strange and intriguing: her hobby was collecting animal roadkill, preserving the bodies, and placing them in tabletop dioramas that illustrate human stories. She felt she was honouring the animals.
“Was I honoring her now with my video, animating her organs?” Emmitt asks. “How do we honor our dead?” Heart Sister offers up some weird and thought-provoking answers.