Sunflower Sisters

Written by Martha Hall Kelly
Review by Brodie Curtis

This epic story, set prior to and during the American Civil War, is inspired by the lives of Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey and her six sisters, mother, and brother, drawing on the Woolsey family archive. An exceptional opening scene gives insight into the deep moral convictions of the Woolseys. Then the Civil War approaches, with a sense of pageantry and excitement that gives way to grim realities of war.

Georgy becomes a Union nurse and experiences the human tragedy of inadequate and rudimentary medical resources to treat an unimaginable number of casualties. At the same time, Georgy must contend with male prejudices against female nurses. The other two protagonists, enslaved Jemma and heartless, self-absorbed plantation owner Anne-May, face economic hardships and family losses brought on by the war. Jemma’s craving for freedom for her family seems hopeless in the face of Anne-May’s human cruelties, which are presented as an unsparingly harsh indictment on slavery. The ravages of war, to Gettysburg and beyond, threaten to tear the country apart and are vividly portrayed not only through military medicine but also through political rebellion, social prejudices, and public health challenges in the Woolseys’ home city of New York.

As the Union begins to gain the upper hand, the strength of Georgy’s and her family’s moral values are tested to the limit when their lives intersect with Jemma and Anne-May. The courage, strength and endurance of Georgy and Jemma as they pursue their dreams and loves, and confront challenges and dangers, are the memorable heart of the story. Deeply researched period detail, rooted in Woolsey family letters, transports us to the time of hoop skirts, havelocks, bombazine dresses, minié balls, and pink satin snoods.

The Woolseys are the ancestors of Caroline Ferriday, the heroine in author Martha Hall Kelly’s mega-hit Lilac Girls, and she has done it again with another historically authentic story of inspiring women.