“Wonderful-looking, empowered superheroes” is how the writer Dan Max describes the McPhee sisters, Jenny and Martha, daughters of venerated New Yorker reporter John McPhee. “They remind me of those cartoon characters the Powerpuff Girls – intense and diminutive.”
And this fall, the sisters will attempt to combine their literary clout – perhaps giving the Ephrons a run for their money. After producing one novel apiece – Martha made an impressive debut with Bright Angel Time a couple of years ago, and Jenny has one coming out next summer – they’re about to publish their manifesto on girlhood at the turn of the millennium, Girls, with photographs by their sister Laura. No Teen People junkies, these girls: The subjects study biogenetics, play football, write novels, and paint like Picasso.
And perhaps write books about girls like that, for the book is partly a family photo album. “The family pictures make the work more personal,” says Laura. “We needed to link why we were doing this to the girls that we talked to,” says Martha. The personal photographs have a Kennedyesque feel, that of an essentially private family choosing to make themselves public in a glamorous, mythmaking way. “I remember singing Christmas carols with Mona Simpson at Jenny’s house,” says book designer Chip Kidd, who also remembers watching J. D. McClatchy engage Jenny and her sister Martha in a dinner-party-long debate about Emily Dickinson. “I always felt like I was in the middle of some great Russian play that had somehow been relocated to the Upper West Side.”
Their father makes an appearance in the photos, but you wouldn’t know it was him unless you read the credits. The sisters, when asked who inspired their book, speak not of “Dad” but of “Mom.” In one early-seventies photo that Jenny and Martha are particularly proud of, they and their other sisters are gathered around the dining-room table with their mother, Pryde Brown, and spread out on the table before them is a jumble of books. “Our mother would have us count and classify the images in girls’ readers,” says Jenny. Were the girls pictured as passive or active? Were the girls playing sports or keeping house? This sort of cultural-studies education was ahead of its time. “Feminism wasn’t a big thing in Princeton in the seventies,” Martha says. “Most of the mothers were … compromised,” Jenny adds. (Peculiarly, given their girl-power slant, Martha and Jenny’s other book is the English translation of Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope.)
“Our parents divorced early. Our parents remarried,” Martha says of their childhood. “My mother married a person who lived a very alternative life.” Their mother’s second husband was a Jesuit priest who had left the order to become a Gestalt therapist. The McPhee sisters went to live on their stepfather’s farm in New Jersey, and the total number of girls under one roof eventually reached seven. “As sisters, we depended on each other a lot, and developed a kind of closeness,” says Laura.
Careers are built on childhoods like these, and the McPhees’ alternative adolescence forms the core of their creative endeavors. Martha’s novel covers this territory from the point of a view of an 8-year-old girl; before Laura (the oldest) chose to concentrate on landscape photography (her book is called No Ordinary Land), she shot pictures of her family for ten years. Girls continues this all-in-the-family trend. “The book did come out of growing up with sisters, and having this life experience that was about girls,” says Martha. “We wanted to see where girls had come as a species.”
So just like their father, they set out to find real American stories. Driving across the wheat-covered hills of eastern Washington, they arrived at a country fair, which Martha remembers as a sort of girl heaven. “We got there,” she says, “and absolutely everywhere there were girls. Girls holding chickens. Girls with pigs. Girls with goats. Girls with cows. Girls with quilts. Girls with jam. And we had the best time.”