Winter Sisters


“What more do you want me to do?” There was a new, brittle edge to Mantel’s voice. “Pick up the cobblestones one by one and look at their undersides? They’re gone, madam. We have looked in every cranny of the city, just as you have. Most times, you’d been to a place even before we’d gotten there ourselves. There’s nowhere else to look.”
“That’s not possible. There’s always something else to be done.”
“Listen to me. We kept watch for your young ones, we did. Stopped urchins on the street – you know, those ones that live in the hovels near the tracks and down by the gasworks. Asked after yours. We’ve done more than that, more than you can imagine.”
“But – “
“If you don’t mind my saying, madam, grief plays nasty tricks on people, especially when it’s children that are perceived to be in trouble. I think it’s time you come to terms, and if you cannot, you best head to Saratoga Springs to take a water cure, because you’ve gone out of your mind with grief. You’ve got to understand. You’ve got to believe it. They’re gone, and no amount of anger at me is going to find them now.”
Outside, Mary put a hand to the side of the brick building to steady herself.

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the editor through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. In no way did this affect my review or my rating of the novel.

Winter Sisters is a historical fiction novel about Emma and Claire, two young girls who go missing during a snowstorm in New York in the late 1800s. As the snow settles, the girls seem to have vanished without a trace, and because their parents died during the same snowstorm, the only ones left to search for the girls are their good family friends Drs. Mary and William Sutter, Mary’s mother Amelia, and Mary’s niece Elizabeth. After a massive search of the town the girls are declared dead, and the Sutters are left heartbroken from their loss. However, the girls’ ordeal is soon uncovered after a massive flooding as the ice melts, and the town of Albany is horrified to discover what happened beneath their noses through an unconventional trial of an Albany resident. Note: this novel does describe graphic sexual abuse, so readers who are particularly sensitive to those topics should probably pass on this one.

This is a follow-up to the novel I Am Mary Sutter, and while many follow-up novels suffer in character development, that was definitely not the case for Winter Sisters. This novel does have quite a few major characters. but such attention was paid to their back story, their strengths and weaknesses, and their personal growth that I never found myself confused. Emma, the oldest of the sisters, was notably treated with profound dignity, which can be difficult to do in any novel in which a child is abused. However, Emma grows from a sweet, innocent child to a strong young woman who is able to defend herself and her sister, and then move past her trauma towards a happier future. A surprising development is that of Viola Van der Veer – I will not dwell much on the specifics of her story to avoid spoilers, but I loved the moment in which she found her own inner strengh, showing that it is never too late in life to become your own woman.

I had some trouble with the pacing in this novel, however. The first third of the novel is spent in Emma and Claire’s absence, and this section just felt too long and slow for me. It seemed unnecessarily weighed down by the Sutters’ grief, and they did not seem to make any progress. Emma and Claire’s discovery was undoubtedly a deus ex machina, and while I was able to accept that resolution, I just felt that the narrative could have been shortened in this location. I would still urge readers to pick up the novel and stick with it until it becomes more engaging again, but I am afraid that the author will lose some readers because of the slowness here.

I love reading historical fiction, mostly because of the setting, and here, the novel did not disappoint. Winter Girls felt upon first glance to be light on worldbuilding, but in retrospect, the details were just woven into the story so well that they were not disruptive. Winter Girls took place in post-Civil War Albany, New York, and looked in detail at the medicine, prostitution, and legal proceedings for that time. Mary Sutter in particular presents some of the most interesting worldbuilding as the only woman doctor in the region. She works for the local hospital as a surgeon, and also has a clinic for local prostitutes and their families to be treated for basic health care. She notibly refuses to do abortions, but often does treat women for complications due to the abortions they have procured elsewhere. In one scene, however, Mary operates on the child of a prostitute whose throat is so swollen she cannot breathe. Mary is shamed by the community for her clinic, as it is illegal to treat prostitutes as it is seen as aiding them in their profession, but Mary strongly feels that everyone deserves basic healthcare, regardless of the legality of their actions otherwise. The political discussion on this topic was interesting, and I feel that it still manages to be relevant in today’s society.

In all, I’ll give Winter Sisters an 8 out of 10. Once I got into the thick of the narrative, I really enjoyed this book and had trouble putting it down, but the slow start made it difficult for me to really commit until about a third of the way through. Even still, I would strongly recommend this to readers of mystery or historical fiction, as there is much to enjoy.

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