Books & Literature

Book Review: Sunflower Sisters, By Martha Hall Kelly

HISTORICAL FICTION: A vivid 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.

The kind of book that makes you say, ‘Just one more chapter.’
4.5

Following the success of 2016’s Lilac Girls and 2019’s Lost Roses, author Martha Hall Kelly has blessed us with another epic tale of historical fiction. While the 1.5 million-copy bestseller Lilac Girls tells the true story of American philanthropist Caroline Ferriday, Sunflower Sisters features Caroline’s inspirational ancestors, the Woolsey women. 

Sunflower Sisters takes place in the United States during the American Civil War. It follows the tales of three very different women as their lives are changed, for better or worse, by the presence of war. Each protagonist—Georgeanna Woolsey, the Union nurse, Jemma, the young girl enslaved on a Maryland plantation, and Anne-May Wilson Watson, the Southern plantation mistress—tells her story in a unique way, painting a picture of the harsh reality of life in one of history’s most brutal periods. 

The differing points of view serve as a great asset to this novel as they allow each woman to have a distinct voice. Alternating narrators that fit together seamlessly keep the story fresh and travelling at a fairly quick pace, although it is slower at times. While this is a long read, it manages to remain unpredictable in a way that keeps the reader hooked. 

The prose features magnificent sensory detail and imagery that brings about a feeling of actually being in the story with the characters, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing what they do. But it’s the masterfully crafted characters that help this book to stand out from a sea of other impressive historical fiction titles.

A member of the Woolsey family of abolitionists, Georgeanna is the link between Sunflower Sisters and Lilac Girls. But Jemma seems to be the stand-out character thanks to an utterly heartbreaking yet inspiring arc. Hall Kelly captures the unthinkable cruelty of slavery in telling her story while also giving the reader faith in the power of human resilience. Despite the atrocities that Jemma and her family endure, she always maintains a sense of hope and self-worth, even at her lowest points. Similarly, the author manages to show the humanity in Anne-May, easily one of the most unlikeable characters in the book. 

Although this is a work of fiction, it contains some real characters and fragments of real surviving letters mixed in with those that have been imagined. Hall Kelly has clearly done her research and brought to life a detailed and accurate depiction of life in the 19th century. 

An obvious gem for lovers of historical fiction, this story is an especially great fit for readers who aren’t already familiar with the details of the American Civil War or the roles of women on both sides of American slavery. There are a few uncomfortable scenes that are quite confronting, partly because the racist and sexist attitudes that drive them still linger today. 

Sunflower Sisters is part of Hall Kelly’s brilliant collection of historical fiction, but readers don’t need to read previous instalments to understand or enjoy it. Though it requires concentration and a little commitment, depending on how quick a reader you are, this story remains captivating throughout and is, at many points, unputdownable. 

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle

Distributed by: Penguin Books Australia
Release date: 30 March 2021
RRP: $29.99

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