Monday, December 27, 2021

Sunflower Sisters

  Sunflower Sisters
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2021. 528 pages.
ISBN:  978-1524796402

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "No one suspected the blond boy's cargo as he drove his crude pony cart through the streets of Charleston."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't listen to naysayers ... You're head and shoulders above them, and those who discourage you do so to justify their own lack of imagination and will never accomplish anything extraordinary."

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly brings the reader to Poland during World War II. Sunflower Sisters, for it cheery title, brings me to the United States during the Civil War. The historical basis for this story is that of Georgeanna Woolsey and her family. "Georgey" is born and raised in a New York family, taught the value of education and independence for a woman, and given strong abolitionist values. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Georgey volunteers as a nurse. She works in New York, Washington DC, and on hospital ships that bring her and her sister to the south.

The story builds on this history of the Woolsey sisters and adds the story of Jemma, a girl born in slavery in the south and Anna-May, Jemma's owner. From these three perspectives, the book studies the history and atrocities of slavery, those who supported it, and those who fought against it. Through these three women, the book also explores the way in which the Civil War divided families, with family members falling on opposite sides of the battle depending on their allegiances. The book travels from the drawing room of the New York to hospitals to battlefields to plantations in St. Mary's County in Maryland and back again. It describes the toll war takes on all ends of the battle.

It depicts the individual personal stories of these women, and through them, brings to life a tine and place in history. The book is billed as the third in the Lilac Girls series because each book in the series picks on a history of a woman (or women) in the family of Caroline Ferriday introduced in Lilac Girls. However, the book deals with a different time period and a different history. The "series" is really only technically a series. Each book stands alone.

Although Georgey Woolsey is the feature character in the book, I actually find the stories of Jemma and Anna May the more compelling ones. Georgey's story is also one of her family, their comfortable life in the north, the philanthropic efforts, and even a love story. Jemma's story is that of the graphic atrocities of slavery; it is of the courage to stand against that world and fight. Anna May's story is that of losing a world and taking whatever steps - right, wrong, or otherwise - to maintain a way of life. The juxtaposition of Jemma as the heroine and Anna May as the villain draw their stories even closer together, making Georgy's story stand further apart. Georgy's view becomes that of someone looking in on the story, while Jemma and Anna May are the story.

I would definitely recommend reading the author's note at the end. It describes the research, the actual history of the book, and the boundary between the history and the fiction. It adds a lot to the depth and understanding of the fictional story.

The book includes a caution or challenge as Jemma learns to read. "Careful though. You change once you read some books. Get more thoughts about things." What a delightful thing that books exist such that we can "get more thoughts" and understand our history so as to learn from it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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