Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly
Many Thanks to Penguin Random House for my copy of Sunflower Sisters which I received in exchange for an honest review.
Like many people at the very start of lockdown, unsure about the times that lay ahead, I decided to join an online Book Group run by Helene in Between. The first book chosen to read by the group was Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly. This historical fiction novel was inspired by the life of Caroline Ferriday, a socialite, anthropologist and all round truly inspiring woman. Caroline Ferriday helped to make the world aware of the atrocities committed at Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War Two specifically to a group of women known as the 'Rabbit Girls'. Martha Hall Kelly's research was second to none on this novel and her respect and love for Caroline really shone through.
Since then Martha Hall Kelly has gone on to write two further novels about Caroline's relatives, first in Lost Roses, and now Sunflower Sisters which features Caroline's Great-Great Aunt Georgy. I was delighted when Penguin Random House reached out to me asking for an honest review of this novel. I was excited to read the next instalment.
Set during the Civil War and inspired by true events, Sunflower Sisters follows the lives of three very different women; Georgeanna 'Georgy' Wolsey, comes from an old monied family but chooses to dedicate her life to nursing and the abolitionist movement. She is passionate about women becoming nurses at a time when female nurses were seen as wholly unsuited to the job. Whilst witnessing unimaginable horrors on the battlefield, her life becomes entwined with that of Jemma.
Jemma, is a young black girl enslaved with her family and working on the Peeler Plantation. Living with Ma and Pa, she is separated from her beloved sister, Patience, enslaved on the next Plantation. Jemma is treated with great cruelty, by her mistress Anne-May. She is sold by Anne-May at the same time the Union Army comes through. With a chance to escape, Jemma must abandon the family she loves.
Our third narrator is ambitious Anne-May who runs Peeler Plantation when her husband and brother leave to join different sides of the Civil War. Anne-May sabotages the Northern soldiers by passing on their secrets to Confederate spies. Cruel, deeply flawed and without conscience, will Anne-May be found out? Will Jemma ever be free? and will Georgy realise her ambition to run a school of nurses for women?
I'm ashamed to say that the US Civil War is a period of history I know relatively little about. But this period is brought beautifully to life by Martha Hall Kelly's careful research and thoughtful writing. Just like the Lilac Girls, the amount of research that Martha Hall Kelly has conducted is staggering, yet never overfaces the reader. Whilst the characters of Jemma and Anne-May are fictional, Georgy Wolsey was a real person.
Martha Hall Kelly has researched Georgy incredibly well and has used a number of letters written by Georgy and her family in the book, some of which are faithfully reprinted. This does not make the book dry in any way, but brings into focus the story that Martha Hall Kelly has woven. The letter written by Georgy's mother to the family of Private Rauch, whom Mrs Wolsey nursed as he lay dying is a very poignant part of the book. It highlights the tragedy of war as young boys are forced very quickly to become young men through the brutality witnessed on the battleground.
The Wolsey women are just incredible. They petition President Lincoln for, and receive more chaplains for the Unionist Army, they are staunch Abolitionists and are certainly not frightened to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to the day to day profession of nursing. Coping with and challenging the prejudices of the medical profession about female nurses along the way. I loved the close relationships forged between the members of the Wolsey family, particularly the sisters who all support each other and give each other great strength.
Jemma is an equally astounding woman. Martha Hall Kelly does not shy away from the brutality administered to the slaves, particularly by Anne-May and sadistic overseer LeBaron. These parts of the novel are extremely hard to read, but necessary to show the lessons of the past and the prejudices that sadly still exist today. Jemma is bold in the face of fear, principled and most of all a loving member of her family. This is why it feels so cruel when she is treated like livestock, sold on and forced to separate from her beloved family. The retaliation against Pa, a kind, dignified and gentle man, protecting his family is shocking and moved me to tears.
Just as in Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly does not take the easy route and makes one of the narrators the despicable Anne-May - a woman with barely any conscience whatsoever. In her is epitomised the attitudes of the day, not only to her slaves, but also to the people in the North.
Relevancy to Today
I found the book especially relevant to events that have occurred over the last year. A suspicion of vote rigging and the election system is mentioned in the novel. We witness two parts of the country who have a sense of deep mistrust for one another which will eventually spill over into one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the USA.
The chapters written by Jemma are written sensitively. It was very brave of the author to highlight that despite the Wolsey Sisters being Abolitionists, their money had come from using slaves. Martha Hall Kelly credits a lady called Kathy Kane for this in the acknowledgements. Kathy shared her own family history as inspiration for Martha Hall Kelly's research.
It would have been easy for the author to contrast the struggles with prejudice that both Georgy and Jemma have, but Martha Hall Kelly wisely does not go there. Instead choosing to let each story shine individually. There is no contrast. Jemma is treated worse than an animal. I also thought it was thoughtful that the Wolsey sisters' own behaviour was challenged. Despite taking Jemma in and telling her that she is free in their eyes, they are called out about seeing Jemma as a 'pet' rather than an equal. It is well done.
I have loved reading another of Martha Hall Kelly's novels, but am also sad to learn that there will be no further books about the ancestors of Caroline Ferriday.
This book is powerful and beautifully narrated. Using her trademark way of writing the novel using three narrators, each of the three narrators has their own distinctive and unique voice and it makes for moving reading.
Jemma, without a doubt was my favourite character and I loved how both her and Georgy loved and gained strength from their families. The bonds between all the women were strong and it was the detail of bringing alive characters such as Sally and Nathan that comes from great research.
Martha Hall Kelly did not shy away from difficult issues. It would have been easy to place Georgy and Jemma on a pedestal but she chooses not to. Georgy is flawed at times with her treatment of Jemma. I believe this has made all of the characters well-rounded and believable.
This is a book, that despite being set over 150 years ago, feels as relevant and fresh for today's times. It is a powerful and important novel. I have no hesitation in awarding this five stars.