REVIEW: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

In brief: The story of three women during the American Civil War – a nurse, a slave and a plantation owner.

The good: Didn’t shy away from the darker side of humans during war.

The not-so-good: Georgy was kind of irritating initially as she could do no wrong.

Why I chose it: I like a good chunky historical fiction novel. Thank you to Penguin for the copy.

Year: 2021

Pages: 516

Publisher: Bantam (Penguin)

Setting: America

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Big books and Easter long weekends go together, right? My plan was to sit down over the long weekend and get stuck into Sunflower Sisters, but it was too good not to devour over the weeknights. This big historical fiction novel of over 500 pages doesn’t shy away from the tough realities of war, capturing the American Civil War through the eyes of three women.

Georgeanna (Georgy) Woolsey is part of a large family of abolitionists in New York. She is determined not to sit around as war begins, so takes a nursing course and joins hospitals at the battlefront. It’s there that she witnesses the war first hand at Gettysburg and other sites. In the South, Anne-May is a plantation owner with a mean streak. She’s unhappy with her lot, and takes it out on her slaves very cruelly. Anne-May is also desperately in love with the owner of the local store, so when he suggests copying letters from her husband containing names and movements of the Union Army, she’s in. The problem is that she can’t really write, so enlists her slave Jemma to do so. Jemma wants to escape the plantation and is determined to take her family with her to safety. But Anne-May and her overseer are determined to make sure that never happens. As the war progresses, the worlds of each woman collide, resulting in a very dramatic finale.

Sunflower Sisters is the third in the Lilac Girls trilogy, but the reader certainly doesn’t need to read them in order. (In fact, Sunflower Sisters has the earliest setting of the three books). The books follow a real family through three wars – in this book, it’s the Woolsey family, supplemented with fictional characters. I must admit that I found Georgy’s character and Woolsey family rather tiresome initially as they were so good and pious at times. This wore off as the book went on and I became more absorbed in the stories of Jemma and Anne-May. (Although I never did get the Woolsey sisters straight). Jemma is a fantastic character who is incredibly brave and devoted to her family’s welfare. She never settles for the status quo and never loses track of her dreams. Anne-May is cruel, manipulative and completely repulsive but something about her had me fascinated. I was interested in seeing how far she would go and when and how she would receive her comeuppance. The story is, as expected, dramatic against the backdrop of war with nothing held back describing the aftermath of battle, tensions between races and the cruel treatment of African American people in the South. As the novel went on, it became more and more of a page-turner and I found myself wondering during the day about Jemma and what would happen next. Despite the size, it’s an easy read that doesn’t disappoint.

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