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Women are the real Civil War heroes in Martha Hall Kelly’s ‘Sunflower Sisters’

UPDATED: Sat., March 27, 2021

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

That “Sunflower Sisters” comes out when one of the most popular Civil War era novels of all time comes under fire is notable.

Martha Hall Kelly’s latest novel looking at a family tree of women wartime heroes is the very antithesis of Margaret Mitchell’s, “Gone With the Wind.” Mitchell’s long-enduring love song to the enslaved South has frayed and worn out like an unwelcome Confederate flag.

A still-divided America, meanwhile, struggles in the shadow of white supremacy that ignited a war between the states, the aftermath of which still haunts us today.

With “Sunflower Sisters,” Kelly writes more realistically about the horrors of the Civil War from the perspective of three very different women in a well-researched, realistic narrative. As with two previous novels, Kelly weaves historical fiction with the real-life exploits of Caroline Ferriday’s family. Ferriday was the central character in “Lilac Girls,” Kelly’s novel about an American actress who helped those imprisoned at a women’s Nazi concentration camp.

Ferriday, it turned out, kept copious family history, saving letters and photographs over generations of the amazing women who had risked their lives in the pursuit of social justice. Caroline’s mother, Eliza, helped families fleeing to New York from the Russian Revolution, which Kelly turned into the novel “Lost Roses.”

In “Sunflower Sisters,” Kelly continues to trek back through history in the letters and records from Caroline Ferriday’s great aunt, Georgeanna “Georgy” Woolsey and her sisters, all crusading for the abolition of slavery. Georgy becomes a nurse who constantly challenges the perceptions of the men around her.

Kelly doesn’t shy from the horrors of war, as Georgy makes her way into the heart of the war at Gettysburg, going with archaic phrasing to capture the moment.

“Back on board, the wards filled with the grossly injured,” Kelly writes. “We breathed through our handkerchiefs, for the stench of superating wounds produced vomiting in the strongest of us, even those habituated to attending the sick and wounded.”

The book also tells the story from the perspective of Jemma, a slave in the border state of Maryland, who endures brutal whipping at the hands of her mistress. That owner, Anne-May, brings the third view of the story, as the queen of the Peeler Plantation, vain and brutal, fighting for her decaying lifestyle brought on by the crumbling pillars of slavery. The dueling perspectives of the slave and her mistress provide an interesting dichotomy of the Old South.

“I went to the pantry, unbuttoned my dress to the waist, and waited, my hands braced against the shelf, fingers around the pretty red cloth Sally Smith lined those shelves with, with the paper lace edges,” Kelly writes as Jemma. “Anne-May took her sweet time, took, knowing the worrying about the pain to come was almost as bad as the whipping.”

Jemma has the gift of literacy, having been taught by her original owner to read and write, not for education but so the slave could read novels for her owner. That woman had vowed to release Jemma, her father, her mother and her sister, a promise reneged by Anne-May, when she inherited the tobacco plantation. That literacy is an advantage Jemma has over Anne-May, who might be able to read but can’t write. “Mama didn’t have time to teach me,” Anne-May tells her sister.

Compassion, however, doesn’t take sides. Georgy’s mother, who gets enlisted into the nursing corps at Gettysburg, comes under criticism for helping Henry Raunch, a young Confederate soldier dying at the hospital.

“You are all America’s sons to me, Lieutenant Rauch,” Jane Eliza Woolsey tells the young man. “My own boy has gone off south of here to fight, and I would hope a Southern nurse would treat him fairly.”

Although we know the outcome of the war, Kelly’s path to victory for the North runs through the battlefield hospitals where Georgy works and through the Peeler Plantation. Kelly’s storytelling picks up speed and intrigue, from Confederate spies to freed men in the Underground Railroad, as the war progresses.

“Sunflower Sisters” is a Civil War story that doesn’t dwell on generals or presidents, or even the doctors who make drastic decisions. The male characters are simply vehicles to drive the story forward.

It’s the women and their activism that tell the story of the struggle to end slavery. They become the real heroes of the war. Kelly tells this story without either romanticizing or sweeping over the horrors that split the nation in the 19th century and continues to do so today.

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