37 pages 1 hour read

Patrick Dewitt

The Sisters Brothers

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2011

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Summary and Study Guide


The Sisters Brothers is a 2011 novel by Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt. Set in 1851, it traces the journey of Charlie and Eli Sisters, two hired killers traveling from Oregon to San Francisco to find a man called Warm, who allegedly stole something from their boss, the Commodore. The darkly comic Western is in the picaresque genre, as the brothers’ episodic misadventures explore different communities populating the American West.

The Sisters Brothers is divided into 64 short chapters. For ease of reference, this guide has attached a number to each of these based on its order in the text. This guide uses the Granta Books edition of the text released in 2011.

Plot Summary

In Oregon City, Eli Sisters, a 19th-century bounty hunter, and his older brother Charlie get a job from their boss, the Commodore: They are to go to San Francisco to track down a man named Warm, who has stolen something from their boss.

On their route, they have a series of unexpected and strange adventures. On the way to California, a poisonous spider bites Eli when they set up camp. Eli gets an antivenom shot which causes his head to swell, which leads to an encounter with a dentist from whom Charlie steals anesthetic. Charlie and Eli next wind up in the hut of a witch who tries to curse them. To free Eli from her house, Charlie to kills some nearby prospectors and steals their tools from. In the next town, Eli falls in love with Sally, a hotel maid, and the brothers watch a duel. Sally rejects Eli due to his size, so as they leave town, he resolves to lose weight.

Charlie reveals that he slept with Sally, so an upset Eli gives up his diet. Traveling on, they meet an adolescent boy abandoned beside some wagons. The boy joins them for a bit, but they soon leave him behind. At the California border, they kill a prospector who attacks Eli.

They also find and kill a red bear on behalf of a man called Mayfield. The brothers take the bear pelt to Mayfield, who pays them $100 and presents them with sex workers. Eli meets Mayfield’s bookkeeper, spending the night in her secret room, before noticing in the morning that someone has stolen the bear pelt. Mayfield accuses the brothers of stealing the pelt and asks to return the money. They try to sneak out of Mayfield but are confronted in the stables by four of Mayfield’s men. Using a counting trick, they kill all four—but then return to Mayfield to demand his fortune, hidden in a safe.

After hiding Mayfield’s treasure, the brothers head to San Francisco to meet up with a go-between named Morris. Instead, all they find is Morris’s diary, which reveals that he befriended Warm and left town with him to find a river where they could test Warm’s invention, a chemical which illuminates gold in riverbeds. This invention is the reason the Commodore wants Warm dead: He wants to get his hands on the formula.

The brothers locate Warm and Morris’s camp upriver, but Warm makes them leave at gunpoint. That evening, three prospectors attack the camp. Charlie and Eli intervene, shooting two of them dead, and then offer to work with Warm and Morris. The next night, Eli and Charlie help Warm and Morris try out the formula. As they pour the chemical into the river, Charlie burns his hand. The invention works, illuminating a fortune in gold. However, Morris falls into the water, so Warm jumps in to save him. Both are exposed to large amounts of the toxic chemical and die shortly after. Native warriors steal the gold, and the brothers journey home.

On the way back, they discover that Mayfield’s hotel has burnt down, and they have lost the fortune hidden there. Next, they go back to Jacksonville, where Charlie has his hand amputated, before returning to their old shack outside Oregon City, which has been looted. Eli visits the Commodore and drowns him in the bath, after which the Sisters brothers return to their family home, where their mother allows them to stay in their old room.

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By Patrick Dewitt