“Winter Sisters” by Robin Oliveira

Genre:        Historical FictionWinter Sisters
Publisher:  Penguin Group Viking
Pub. Date:   Feb. 27, 2018

“Winter Sisters” is historical fiction. We see life in 1879 Albany, New York, as clearly as if we were walking down the street with the main characters.

“Winter Sisters” is a family saga with a poignant feminist narrative. One character is a midwife who becomes a surgeon. The author models the surgeon after, Elizabeth Blackwell, M.D. (1821-1910), America’s first female doctor.

“Winter Sisters” is a mystery. A blizzard blasts the city and in its chaotic wake, two young girls go missing. Her family spends weeks searching for them in case they survived. This blizzard is not fiction. It occurred in 1888 and took the lives of four hundred people. The author moves the year back in time for a legal matter in her story.

“Winter Sisters” is a courtroom drama. This occurs later in the book and brilliantly portrays a sensational trial that has the local newspapers working around the clock and the residents arguing over their dinner tables. Here is where the reader discovers the reasons for pushing back the year of the storm. (Next sentence is a possible spoiler.) In 1879, the age of female sexual consent was ten years old. Learning this fact made this reviewer physically ill. The law was changed in 1886. The legal age for female consent went from ten years of age to sixteen years of age.

One can argue that although the book is marketed as historical fiction, it is actually a thoughtful thriller hidden within a historical fiction tale with a feminist theme. The only flaw lay in the first few chapters. There is a difficulty in following just who is who in the story’s many protagonists. This may be so because “Winter” is the follow up tale to “My Name Is Mary Sutter,” which I never read.   Mary is the female surgeon.  The book is engaging as well as politically profound, with matters that are still present in today times. Simply turn on the news.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.




“The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

Pub. Date:  September 20, 2016wonder

Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company

Every part of this novel had me until it didn’t, which wasn’t until the last chapter. But I am ahead of myself.  The year is 1859.  The protagonist is an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.  She is a firm believer in science, not God’s will, and was taught to never let her emotions get in the way of her job.  Between the choice of sitting with a dying soldier to bring him comfort until he has drawn his last breath or moving onto another patient whose life she may still be able to save, our heroine was taught to harden her heart and move on. She is living in London when she is offered an unusual two-week nursing position in Ireland.  Her job is to observe an 11-year-old girl who supposedly has not eaten in months. The residents of this section in Ireland, where the child lives, are devoutly Roman Catholic.   The town believes that the 11-year-old is a living saint.  The nurse’s views are in sharp difference from her patient as well as her patient’s entire village.  She feels the residents are believers in mysticism rather than religion.

The child is becoming a legend with pilgrims visiting from all over to meet her, which is how our nurse got her job.  A committee in the little girl’s village is formed to investigate the case. The nurse’s job is to ensure that it is true the child has not been receiving any nourishment.  The committee wants proof on whether this is truly a miracle or if someone is sneaking her food, so the nurse will live in the child’s room to begin the watch. Of course the all science, no-nonsense nurse does not believe in miracles and comes to Ireland positive that she will put an end to this hoax.  She soon realizes the committee’s true wish is for the child to be declared a living saint to bring recognition to their small village.  They want this even though it is obvious to all the child will soon die.  At first the nurse thinks the child’s religious devotion is histrionic.  Then she comes to feel the whole town is delusional and that her patient is a victim of child abuse.  The family has already lost a son. The nurse cannot understand why the parents aren’t forcing their only remaining child to eat.  During her short employment, the nurse is charmed by her 11-year-old patient’s sweetness, impressed with her intelligence, and in awe of her dedication to fast, knowing it will mean her death.  The child seems to think it is her duty to die.

This story is thought provoking in so many ways.  It forces the reader to think of topics such as, science vs. religion, how Ireland’s potato famine affected the country’s lack of shock to seeing starvation, the different religious beliefs in all the sects of Christianity, the connection between siblings, child abuse, and the legal vs. moral matters.  The reason the book lost me is I feel the ending of the story is too neat with no loose ends; it could be tied up in a bow.  The author opens too many cans of worms for such an ending.  I wonder if she missed an opportunity for a slam ending.  But this is just my evaluation and you may disagree.   This is a gripping story that I found very hard to put down and I bet you won’t be able to either.