Newest review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

By Ekta R. Garg

March 31, 2021

Genre: Historical fiction

Release date: May 30, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

Three women must wrestle with their personal challenges as they try to stay alive and keep their loved ones close during the Civil War. When their paths cross, they do all they can to hold fast to their convictions that fall on either side of the Union/Confederacy divide. Author Martha Hall Kelly rounds out her trilogy about the relatives of the famed Ferriday family in the historically deep but ultimately lightweight novel Sunflower Sisters.

In 1861 in Maryland on the Peeler Plantation, slave owner Anne-May Wilson Watson tries to do everything she can to keep up with the latest fashions. It’s hard with the rumblings of war and a tobacco farm to oversee. Not that she does any of the actual work; that what the slaves are for.

Except the “colored” people under her thumb refuse to stay there. Every time she turns around, one or the other shows blatant insubordination. Even when she takes the time to teach them a lesson with the whip or turn her attention elsewhere if one of them has to be lynched. If only they’d remember their place and not show her up at every turn. So what if she can’t read well or write at all? As long as Jubal Smalls at the Smalls and Sons Mercantile keeps her supplied with snuff and the best materials for her wardrobe, she can withstand almost anything: the slaves’ ignorance and her husband’s stupid scientific pursuits.

Jemma is one of those “ignorant” slaves. When she belonged to Anne-May’s aunt, Tandy Rose, life as a slave was almost bearable. Almost. Under Anne-May’s ownership, even those tiny moments of relief seem to slip away.

Although Jemma and the other slaves do their best to take care of one another, there’s only so much they can push back against a system determined to keep them down. Every time Jemma feels even a glimmer of possibility of running away with her ma, pa, and twin sister, Patience, Anne-May and her plantation overseer seem to smell the efforts. Soon it becomes clear to Jemma that if she wants to escape, she might have to do it alone.

In New York City, Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey doesn’t hesitate to use her family’s connections to help the Union efforts. War is coming, and Georgy wants to do everything she can to help the abolitionist efforts. She raises money for soldiers and trains as a nurse so she can help them with battle wounds. Her interest in nursing grows and becomes a desire to start a school for female nurses.

People discourage her—no one will want to be treated by female nurses, they tell her, because it’s not a woman’s place to engage in the medical sciences. Georgy perseveres, however, even disagreeing with her childhood sweetheart, a full-fledged physician, who is also skeptical of her ambitions. She remains undeterred and pushes forward with her efforts to help civilians and soldiers alike.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s historical research is impeccable. Every page showcases the authenticity of the story she’s telling. Details as small as the materials Jemma uses to make bonnets to the more gruesome details of how slave owners punished their slaves will inform readers to the point of making them feel like they’re living alongside the characters.

It’s in the characters themselves that the novel suffers its greatest weakness. Kelly builds all three of her protagonists with care and time; the book may remind readers of the sweeping sagas from a decade or two ago in the measured pace. However, none of the three characters follow a major change in their arcs.

This is most disappointing in Anne-May. While a complete change from Confederate sympathizer to abolitionist would be laughable, there is almost nothing to redeem her in the story. Jemma and Georgy present more sympathetic points of view, but they also follow fairly even-keeled storylines. The result is that the book feels more like a collection of experiences rather than a historical novelization with shattering moments and clear points of change to propel the narrative forward.

Fans of Kelly’s work and those who enjoy learning about a heartbreaking yet fascinating time of U.S. history may want to read this one. For others, I recommend they Borrow Sunflower Sisters.

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