Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly
Book Review

Publication Date: 30 March, 2021
Publisher: Bantam Australia
Series: Lilac Girls, Book 3
Format: Paperback (Also available as an audiobook and ebook)
Genre: Historical Fiction


In early 1861, Georgeanna Woolsey knows she’s not cut out for the demure life, and finds her passion for nursing just as the Civil War breaks out. She turns down marriage proposals, tries to bend societal boundaries, and is unfazed by the criticism of male doctors who consider women a bother on the battlefront. While venturing from New York to Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg with her sister Eliza, Georgy bears witness to the unparalleled horrors of slavery.

In the South, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation, while her beloved sister, Patience, is enslaved on the property next door. Following a tragedy that shakes Jemma to the core, she is sold by the cruel Anne-May just as the Union Army comes through. When she finds a chance for escape, she must decide if she’s willing to abandon her loved ones for freedom.

Disgruntled and unhappy in her marriage, Anne-May is forced to run the Peeler Planation when her husband joins the Union Army and her brother enlists with the Confederates. Now in charge, she follows her own ambitions and desires, and finds herself drawn into a secret Southern network of spies...

Inspired by true accounts and born from extensive research, Sunflower Sisters is a rich and sweeping story of remarkable women, while vividly capturing a wartorn America grappling with nationalism and unspeakable cruelty. It’s a powerful and moving pageturner for readers everywhere.

My Thoughts

Sunflower Sisters is the latest offering from Martha Hall Kelly. It is the final book of her Lilac Girls trilogy which began with Lilac Girls, followed by Lost Roses, set during World War II and World War I respectively. The American Civil War is the setting for Sunflower Sisters and, as the previous two books, can be enjoyed as a standalone.

Georgeanna 'Georgy' Woolsey, from a wealthy Northern abolitionist family, is determined to do her bit for the war effort and successfully applies to become a volunteer nurse for the Union army. After a month's training, Georgy's first assignment is to a hospital in Washington D.C. Her numerous requests to travel with the Army of the Potomac are denied. Later she serves on the Daniel Webster, a hospital ship stationed off the shores of Maryland, which brings her closer to the army. When she receives news that her brother is at Gettysberg, Georgy and her mother travel there but are totally unprepared for the chaos, the horrendous sights and smells of the battlefield and the inadequate medical care provided for the casualties.

Sixteen-year-old Jemma is enslaved on the tobacco growing Peeler Plantation in Maryland. The lives of the slaves worsen when Anne-May Wilson Watson becomes their new mistress and her husband, Fergus, marches off to war with the the Union army. Whippings and other cruel punishments are administered by Anne-May herself for the slightest misdemeanour. The slaves also fear the brutish overseer LeBaron Caruthers, although they often find the courage to thwart some of his plans.

Jemma and her family prepare to escape. Before they can follow through with their plans, tragedy strikes and Jemma is sold away from the plantation by the cruel and vindictive Anne-May. Jemma gets her taste of freedom, but is pursued north by Anne-May, who believes Jemma is in possession of damning evidence of her connection to a Southern spy ring.

Sunflower Sisters is a lengthy novel. It begins slowly as Georgy, Jemma and Anne-May, and their circumstances, are introduced. With each subsequent chapter, however, the drama steadily builds until eventually the paths of all three cross. Having the story unfold from three different perspectives gives a well-rounded view of what was happening at the time and a better understanding of the effects of the war on them and the general population.

While Georgy earned my respect and Anne-May my dislike, the stoic, courageous and often philosophical Jemma won my heart. Despite all that she had endured, she believed there was a better life to be had and was determined to make it happen.

Sunflower Sisters is an unforgettable story of three women, who despite their different backgrounds shared similar traits of strength and resilience.

I have no hesitation in recommending this novel to historical fiction fans or those with a special interest in the American Civil War.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Australia for a complimentary copy of this book.

Meet the Author

Martha Hall Kelly is the author of Lilac Girls, the runaway bestseller that spent over a year on the New York Times paperback chart. She lives in Connecticut, where she spends her days filling legal pads with stories and reading World War II books. Lost Roses, her second novel, was released in April 2019 and her third, Sunflower Sisters, will publish in March 2021.

Connect with Martha: Website | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

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  1. I'm sure its lovely and I'm glad you enjoyed it, but she pissed me off with Lilac Girls and I haven't forgiven her yet.