Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Book Review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

 After reading about Caroline Ferriday in Lilac Girls (link),  and then about her mother, Eliza Woolsey Ferriday, in Lost Roses (link),  I was ecstatic to read about Georgeanna Woolsey in Sunflower Sisters (link).  The Woolsey family members were Long Island royalty that made their mark in New York history throughout generations.  Martha Hall Kelly remember when I went all fan girl on her in this post (link) wrote a trilogy of historical fiction novels based on three different generations of this admirable family.  Sadly, Sunflower Sisters (link) is the final story of this captivating trilogy.

The novel is titled Sunflower Sisters: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly.
The book is read by Saskia Maarleveld, Shayna Small, Jenna Lamia, Cassandra Campbell.
The unabridged version is 17 hours and 50 minutes long.

best civil war historical fiction novel

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Book Review:  Sunflower Sisters

The book Sunflower Sisters: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly takes place during the Civil War on the east coast of the United States.  Like the other books in this trilogy, the story follows three different characters whose lives all eventually intertwine.  For those of you that know me, I'm not a fan of different story lines in one novel, but this author does it seamlessly.

One of the three main characters is the famous Georgeanna Woolsey of New York.  Georgey was an outspoken woman in her early 30s that kept pushing off her chance of love in order to fulfil her ambitions.  She wanted to serve as a nurse in the US army and to play her part in the war.  Her love for nursing led her to realize her ultimate goal which was to open the first school dedicated to formally educating female nurses.  In their spare time, the Woolsey family were avid abolitionists trying to make up for how their ancestors made their fortune.  Georgey was more interested in helping soldiers, healing orphans, participating in Union benefiting charities, and freeing slaves than she was in marrying the love of her life.  As the war neared an end with an Union victory in sight, Georgey realized that it is possible to get married, make your mark on the world, and still be accomplished.  As a result, she began to reprioritize her life so that she had someone to share those accomplishments with.  Of all three books, this one has the most intriguing romance!

The second of the three main characters was a young slave named Jemma.  She lived and served on the Peeler Planation in Maryland.  Jemma's story is a heartbreaking one.  The author really did a great job researching and writing this story in the life of a slave.  While many of us know what a slave is, it's hard to imagine the daily life, physical abuse, and emotional horrors that these poor people had to suffer through.  The author puts all that on full display for you.  Jemma's main responsibility was to run the home.  It was her job to mend dresses, clean the house, keep up with her mistress's toiletries, and many other things.  In addition to her mandated tasks, she took on an additional stressful role that made her an unofficial advocate for her family blood or not on the plantation.  Jemma was a subject of abuse, unwanted lust, and a victim of many tragedies.  Despite Jemma's hard life, she made herself strength, ambition, and unlikely friendships that helped her to outwit her mistress.

The final main character in Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly is Anne-May Watson of Peeler Planation.  This Louisiana born woman was physically beautiful, well groomed, and full of manners.  Despite that, she was evil on all accounts.  While one would easily scorn Anne-May simply for being a slave owner, her evilness was much deeper than that.  She married a good man that wanted nothing more but to care for her and do the right thing.  She had a sister that cared for her and dedicated her life to running Anne-May's household.  She had a brother that doted on her and truly believed in her.  This selfish, self obsessed character was unable to appreciate the good people in her life because she judged people on their physical beauty.  She was manipulative and mean.  Even Anne-May's redeeming moment in the novel was tainted with selfish desires.  As much as I wanted to hate this character, I found myself following her story like you would a train wreck's.

I honestly enjoyed reading all three story lines and would put it as my second favorite novel in the trilogy just behind Lost Roses.  As much as I really LOVED this book, my favorite part was the author's note at the end.  Martha Hall Kelly took the time to separate fact from fiction for the reader.  Whenever I read something "based on a true story", I always wonder what's true about it.  This author always makes a point to let you know.  I was fascinated to learn that the Wooley family's story was pretty accurate and was told through their letters that have been saved through history.  One letter was written verbatim in the book.  I was saddened to learn that Sally Smith, one of the slaves from Peeler Planation wasn't a real character.  My disappointment quickly left when the author explained who Sally Smith's character was based on.  During the author's research, she went to a cemetery relative to her book.  One of the head stones was off to the side away from the other gravesites.  The author was distraught to learn that even in death this colored woman was scorned.  While Martha Hall Kelly couldn't find any real information on this woman, she was able to read her name off the headstone.  That name was Sally Smith.

I would HIGHLY recommend Sunflower Sisters: A Novel by Martha Hall Kelly.

Have you ever read a book from this trilogy?


  1. It probably helps that sunflowers are your faves! I've read somewhere last week that they are bad for the allergies and immediately thought of you.

    1. Yes, they are! It was interesting, because I just assumed that sunflowers would be a symbol of hope and happiness. Instead, they used sunflowers as a warning in the underground railroad. They would tie sunflowers to places that the slaves should stay away from. They were an indication of danger.

      LOL, It looks like I do everything to aggravate my allergies! Although, I did listen to you listen to you this season and cut out the chamomile tea at the start of the Spring.

    2. I still drink chamomile but I will stop around August because that is when a weed called ambrosia flowers here and it is the Mother of all allergens here in Europe. Try to find some homeopathic medicines for allergies for you and the kids, they are the safest. We had acacia, poplars and now linden trees flowering which aggravates a lot of sensitive people.

    3. So far the best thing that works for us is the locally sourced, unfiltered honey. My son loves it but my daughter would rather drink a bottle of cough syrup every night.. my strange child. LOL

  2. No, I haven’t read those, though I do enjoy a good trilogy. I’m over war books and keeping to comfort reads right now.

    1. With your husband's ties to Brooklyn, you may enjoy it! Although, I wouldn't exactly call them comforting. Especially not the first one. I think I liked them so much because they were historically accurate.

  3. No i have not read a book from that Trilogy! But looks enjoyable.

    1. According to Amazon this book is really great. It is 5 stars.

  4. Well, you're going to single handed fill up my reading library queue with all of these great book recommendations! Going to add this trilogy to my list now!


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