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Northwest Passages Book Club features Martha Hall Kelly’s abolitionist novel ‘Sunflower Sisters’

UPDATED: Sun., April 4, 2021

Author Martha Hall Kelly joined Northwest Passages Book Club to discuss her latest historical fiction novel, “Sunflower Sisters,” with The Spokesman-Review’s Kristi Burns Friday.

Based on a true story, Kelly’s bestselling debut novel “Lilac Girls” introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite turned philanthropist who helped 72 women escape from the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

In “Sunflower Sisters,” Kelly introduces readers to Ferriday’s ancestor, Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse and ardent abolitionist. During the war, Woolsey crosses paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl, and Ann-May Wilson, a harsh plantation mistress whose husband is fighting for the Confederacy.

Burns opened the discussion with a question about Woolsey’s mother, Jane Eliza, and the pieces of wisdom she shares throughout.

“It has been my experience,” she says at one point, “that the people who can profit most from lessons seldom know they need them.”

With all of her no-nonsense parenting, she was able to raise eight children on her own, after the early death of her husband.

Many of the plot points were taken directly from the Woolsey family’s extensive correspondence. At times it was difficult to choose which stories to include, especially since she would be limited to writing them from Georgy’s perspective.

“Sometimes having too much is not good, but I made my way through it,” she said.

The other two point-of-view characters, Jemma and Wilson, were built from a conglomeration of other accounts. The inspiration for Jemma came largely from a book called “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” an autobiographical account of the life of Harriet Ann Jacobs. Kelly strongly recommended Jacobs’ book as a companion piece to “Sunflower Sisters.”

Burns and Kelly also spoke about how well-traveled and educated the Woolsey sisters were for their time.

“They knew they were smart and their mother raised them to speak their minds,” Kelly said. And, like Caroline Ferriday after them, the Woolsey sisters were required to do good works, from helping at orphanages to field hospitals. “They were not allowed to just stay home and sew.”

“They gave up toys and took up politics,” Kelly said.

Burns next asked about some of the plot points that felt especially relevant to her. At one point, for example, Ann-May Wilson makes reference to “well-meaning people on both sides,” which, Burns explained, might call to mind public figures of today like Kellyanne Conway.

They also spoke about the relationship that develops between Woolsey and the doctor, Frank Bacon, and Woolsey’s struggle to stay independent.

Along the way, Woolsey meets Frederick Law Olmsted, who in addition to designing New York’s Central Park and Spokane’s Olmsted Park, was head of the sanitary commission during the civil war.

At the time, before nurses became more prevalent, when men were wounded on the battlefield, civilian wives, mothers and sisters would come to care for them.

Kelly also discussed her research into various tobacco products like snuff. In the book, Wilson is addicted to snuff, which is perhaps the least objectionable aspect of her character.

They also discussed the presence of sunflowers throughout the book and the ways they were used as warning signs along the underground railroad.

Wrapping up the discussion, Burns asked a few audience questions, which led to Kelly sharing a few details about two of her upcoming novels.

Set during the Cold War, the first of these focuses on the history behind Operation Paperclip and the Nazi scientists who were pardoned and brought to the U.S. to work on the space program and in various military organizations after World War II. Kelly’s novel, “The Golden Doves,” follows two Ravensbruck survivors as they travel the world to hunt down the Nazi doctor who experimented on them.

The second novel will be a contemporary thriller set in Kelly’s hometown.

“My husband says we might have to move because I’ve scared myself so badly, but it’s a small price to pay,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s “Sunflower Sisters” was released March 30 and is available at Auntie’s Bookstore.

For information, visit marthahallkelly.com.

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