Martha Hall Kelly’s million-copy bestseller Lilac Girls introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of Ferriday’s ancestor Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse during the Civil War whose calling leads her to cross paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Anne-May Wilson, a Southern plantation mistress whose husband enlists.
Georgeanna “Georgey” Woolsey isn’t meant for the world of lavish parties and the demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women on the battlefront a bother. 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 Plantation 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.
Martha Hall Kelly is a treasure to historical fiction, and history in general. I was so excited when I saw this ARC for her newest novel – I thoroughly enjoyed Lilac Girls. Martha has an amazing writing style, which flows, and carries a reader deep into a story with little effort.
Sunflower Sisters ended up being one of those books I look forward to re-reading, or perhaps listening to on Audible. With three narrators – Georgey, Jemma and Anne-May – I can see a rich and beautiful Audible production that will help bring this book to even more readers.
I really enjoyed reading the Author’s notes at the end of the book. All the letters she includes in this novel are based on actual letters exchanged from the Woolsey sisters. In addition, it is clear that Georgey and her family are amazing women of history I had never heard of. I was unaware that during the Civil War, women had to push for the right to go into the thick of battle scenes to nurse patients. Or that the first woman’s nursing college was developed shortly after the Civil War.
The horrors of slavery are truthful and shared in a way that you almost resign yourself to the heartache of watching Jemma and her fellow slaves and family suffer at the hands of others. Reading about Jemma finding her strength and her own sense of self was one of my favorite parts of the story. I cried more than once during her narrations.
Anne-May is absolutely the worst character – and I am so glad that Martha included her in the story. It really set you into the mindset of the times, and how someone viewed the world, and how easily they could be twisted. There was plenty about her story to make you perhaps give her passes for her behaviors… and then you’d realize, she chooses to be awful. I loved it.
This book is a solid 5/5. I want to see a movie adaption. I want the world to know more about the Woolsey sisters. Anne-May and Jemma were both characters representing people of the time. But everything you read about the Woolsey sisters is grounded in history and it is everything.
My professional background in biotechnology as a research chemist and as a veterinary technician has allowed me to have experienced two vastly different fields and for that I am thankful. In both careers, I have mentored, encouraged, and developed talent.
As a mother of two (a daughter and a son), I’m a self-proclaimed backyard chicken guru and someone who has “foster failed” nearly all the animals currently running the household. Oh, and I maintain a husband in my spare time.