Sunflower Sisters is Martha Hall Kelly’s third book about the real-life women of the Woolsey/Ferriday family who were American philanthropists. According to the author, “when the members of the Woolsey family gave up toys, they took up politics.” Sunflower Sisters is about Caroline Ferriday’s great aunt, Georgeanna Woolsey, who worked as a nurse during the Civil War. It is my favorite of the three novels. The other two novels are Lilac Girls (Caroline Ferriday, World War II) and Lost Roses (Eliza Mitchel Ferriday, World War I).
The name Sunflower Sisters is based on the fact that sunflowers were used as a sign of danger on the underground railroad. They would be placed on fences or trees near unsafe places so the escaped slaves would know to avoid those areas.
The novel is told through the points of view of three women. First is Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey, second Anne-May Wilson-Watkins, a female tobacco plantation owner in Maryland, and third by Jemma, a slave on that plantation. The storyline regarding Georgy is based upon the Woolsey family letters and memorabilia in the family museum. It was fascinating to read of the discrimination against female nurses, and the extra hardships they suffered during the Civil War.
The plantation owner, Anne-May Wilson-Watson, is fictional but seems to accurately portray the cruelty of slave owners and their overseers. Anne-May, whose husband is fighting for the Union Army, gets taken in by a local merchant and helps pass war secrets along to the Rebels. Anne-May is quite the character, and makes even Pinkerton Detectives look like fools. Regardless of how bad she is, she seems to always get her way.
Jemma, a slave on Anne-May’s plantation, is a strong young woman, who cares deeply for her family. Anne-May takes advantage of Jemma’s ability to read and write when it comes time to pass on the war secrets. Georgy and her mother, Eliza Jane Woolsey, meet Jemma in Gettysburg after Jemma had been conscripted into service of the Union Army.
While the novel is 528 pages long, the plot moves right along. There is suspense, intrigue, and very interesting information about the Civil War. 5-Stars. Highly recommended.
Thank you to #Netgalley and Ballantine Books for my advanced reader copy. The expected publication date is March 30, 2021. If you love historical fiction, be sure to put this on your To Be Read List.