Sunflower Sisters - Martha Hall Kelly

Goodreads Book Blurb:

Georgeanne “Georgey” Woolsey isn’t meant for the world of lavish parties and demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when the war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women a bother on the battlefront. In proving them wrong, she and her sister Eliza venture from New York to Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg and witness the unparalleled horrors of slavery as they become involved in the war effort.

In the South, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, where she lives with her mother and father. Her sister, Patience, is enslaved on the plantation next door and both live in fear of LeBaron, an abusive overseer who tracks their every move. When Jemma is sold by the cruel plantation mistress Anne-May at the same time the Union army comes through, she sees a chance to finally escape–but only by abandoning the family she loves.

Anne-May is left behind to run Peeler Planation when her husband joins the Union Army and her cherished brother enlists with the Confederates. In charge of the household, she uses the opportunity to follow her own ambitions and is drawn into a secret Southern network of spies, finally exposing herself to the fate she deserves.

Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters provides a vivid, detailed look at the Civil War experience, from the barbaric and inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City to the horrors of the battlefield. It’s a sweeping story of women caught in a country on the brink of collapse, in a society grappling with nationalism and unthinkable racial cruelty, a story still so relevant today.

Series / Genres:

My Review:

***Thanks to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an eARC of this book. The following review is my honest reflection on the text provided.

absolute favourite:
5/5

I was so excited to receive a copy of this book to review, having already read the first two installments in the Lilac Girls series. I absolutely loved Lilac Girls thanks to the three different POV characters, but Lost Roses had been relatively disappointing. I felt the POV characters the second time around were too similar and, even worse, not even the most interesting in the story. Sunflower Sisters has returned to the original formula and improved upon it dramatically.

Georgey, Jemma, and Anne-May are three truly unique perspectives to follow throughout the Civil War. I devoured Georgey and Jemma’s chapters, which always seemed to end too soon, and their stories were captivating in their own right. Georgey withstood the belittling and derisive attitude of the men around her as she first fought to be accepted into nursing training, and as she worked as a nurse wherever they would take her. She kept pushing forward to follow her own ethical code, willing to withstand the verbal and emotional abuse from her ‘peers’. Knowing she had the benefit of her status and privilege to support her made this possible, but it certainly didn’t make it easy. On the other hand, Jemma’s courage had to withstand horrific abuse with very little hope to help keep it alive. The sheer amount of torture and loss she endured throughout her life would be enough to diminish anyone’s spirit but it only made Jemma stronger. Anne-May is as opposite to these two strong, noble characters as possible without becoming a caricature of the embodiment of racism and hate. Self-righteous, her ignorance emboldens her to treat everyone with disdain and little empathy, even her family. Her snuff addiction and inflated sense of importance allow her to perform horrendous acts of cruelty with no guilt. It is rare to read about someone with no redeeming qualities but Anne-May is truly despicable.

As much as I love historical fiction, I can’t recall ever reading a story set during the Civil War. This meant that while I was prepared for the typical war story tropes, I wasn’t prepared for specific dates or battles and it made it more interesting not knowing what to expect. Having perspectives from both factions meant you could see why people within the same country, sometimes even within the same family, were willing to fight each other for their side. Knowing who was in the wrong here, I appreciated the perspective of some of the characters who felt forced by their families or their neighbours to enlist for a side, and a cause, they didn’t align themselves with. Even better were the subtle signs and sly actions of some characters who were working undercover from border and southern states to help slaves escape north. Though this wasn’t the main narrative, it was definitely interesting to see how the underground railway, or just conscientious individuals working alone, could have been operating at this time.

This feels like a very timely release, a different approach to the many published works over the last few years addressing racism and humanity. It doesn’t feel sanctimonious or judgmental, just a captivating work of fiction about real historical figures, each doing what they believe is right as the Civil War rages.

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