Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Book Review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

Pages: 528
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Pub. Date:  March 30, 2021
Publisher: Ballantine
Source: Publisher for review
Other Books By Author: Lilac Girls
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "Lilac Girls introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbruck concentration camp. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of her ancestor Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse who joins the war effort during the Civil War, and how her calling leads her to cross paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Ann-May Wilson, a southern plantation mistress whose husband enlists.  Georgeanne "Georgey" Woolsey isn't meant for the world of lavish parties and demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when the war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women a bother on the battlefront. 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."


There's three main characters in Sunflower Sisters and each woman brings something different to this memorable Civil War tale. First up, there's Georgy, who comes from a family of abolitionists, and wants to do something meaningful with her life, so she is determined to become a nurse.  She gets the opportunity to study with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell who is the first female to graduate from medical school.  However, prejudices against women are still running rampant in medicine and this becomes even more apparent to Georgy when she is at a battlefield hospital.  Then there's Jemma, who is an enslaved woman working on a tobacco plantation in Maryland.  The mistress of the plantation in the cruel Anne-May, who is an all-around despicable person.  She treats just about everyone horribly, she is frivolous, and even takes advantage of her husband's part in the war to start an affair. While taking part in the affair, she finds herself spying for the Confederacy and forces Jemma to help her.  Each character paints a different picture of what life was like during the Civil War depending on what side you were on politically as well as the atrocities and hardships of life as an enslaved person.  Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly is an epic Civil War saga that depicts all the heart-wrenching situations readers have come to expect during the Civil War.  

Georgy is obviously a character that most people would root for from the beginning of Sunflower Sisters. I found her abolitionist family to be really interesting as well as her determination to become a nurse. She could have easily lived a cushy life, but chose to do something more.  It's also compelling how Kelly brought to the forefront how female medical students were treated and how difficult it was for unconventional women during this time period. 

My heart also went out to Jemma in Sunflower Sisters. Some of her chapters were difficult to read, because it's just so heartbreaking, but I think Kelly does a good job bringing to life the horrors of slavery.  I knew it would be tough, but I couldn't wait for Jemma to break free from Anne-May's clutches as well as LeBaron, the overseer, and escape life on the plantation. Her journey is definitely an arduous one.

Anne-May was the worst character in Sunflower Sisters. She almost felt like a caricature of a Southern slave owner. She not only treats everyone around her horribly, she also spends the family's fortune on snuff and things she doesn't need. She has an affair, which will have major repercussions. She also finds herself knee deep in a spy mission and involves Jemma in it as well.  Ultimately, she is morally bankrupt.  I do wish Kelly would have fleshed out this character a bit more, especially regarding her background and what makes her tick.  However, Anne-May felt like a one dimensional villain at times.  Nonetheless, I couldn't wait for Anne-May to get a nice heaping dose of her own medicine.

While I enjoyed Lilac Girls more than Sunflower Sisters, I did think that it was a compelling historical read.  The Civil War is a difficult topic for many, but I think Kelly captures the horrors of the time period well. She ties together the three women's stories expertly and I think fans of Lilac Girls won't be disappointed, especially when readers recognize that Georgy is an ancestor of Caroline's from Lilac Girls

Are you a fan of Martha Kelly Hall's novels? Is this one on your TBR list? Let me know in the comments below.



  1. Lovely review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. I haven't read anything by this author. I do love living vicariously through you, though. :)

  3. I'm looking forward to this one as it's set in a time period I haven't read much.

    1. Me too. I wanted a break from all the WII novels I've been reading. Thanks for visiting, Michele!

  4. I read a lot of historical fiction, but actually haven't come across that many set during the Civil War - this sounds really good!

    1. Right? I was happy to switch from my usual WII novels. Thanks for visiting, Angela!


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