Plot: This is a well-plotted, perfectly paced novel whose chapters—told from the alternating perspectives of different characters—paint a colorful portrait of the frontier town of Lawrenceville, Georgia and its residents. What begins as a story of the clash between so-called scientific and folk medicine in the second decade of the nineteenth century turns, by the end, into a much more profound reflection on the role that personal belief plays in how people of any time or place conduct their lives.
Prose: Westover’s prose is well suited to the historical tale he tells. There’s homey loquaciousness in the speech and manners of the residents of Lawrenceville that seems authentic for its period frontier setting and that serves well the story’s moments of humor and drama.
Originality: There have been many novels about the settling of the American frontier and the developments that advanced it from its primitive origins to the modern era, but this novel is very original in presenting how the contentious practice at the time of different types of medicine—folk, patent, and scientific—can serve as a lens through which to view such changes. The novel’s ending, which adds a dimension of genuine faith healing to the events preceding it, makes The Winter Sisters a unique treatment of its themes.
Character Development: Readers will respond warmly to Westover’s well-developed characters. He endows each of the three Winter Sisters with their own personalities, although Rebecca, the oldest and the most level-headed, and Effie, the youngest and the one touched with uncommon spiritual grace, stand out most vividly. Dr. Aubrey Waycross is amusing in his naïvete as he promotes his type of university-learned medicine that is little more scientific than the folk remedies of the Winter Sisters. Patent-medicine salesman Salmon Thumb provides wonderful comic relief as a huckster whose showman’s persona masks a deep understanding of human nature.
Date Submitted: August 20, 2019
Readers will appreciate Aubrey’s transformation from self-righteousness to being humbled by the tenacity and healing skills of rural women. The writing is smart and witty: Aubrey thrills to patients who bring “coughs, sneezes, wheezes, rales—a cacophony of illness,” and Sarah bitterly snarls, “Every human being is a skin sack stuffed up to the neck with greed and flesh and stupidity. And what spills out of their face holes are delusions and mistakes.” The humorous moments help to balance the era’s pervasive fear and despair in the face of sorrow, poverty, and incurable diseases.
Westover’s attention to historical detail is evident in his portrayal of the medical treatments popular in the early 19th century. The members of the Lawrenceville community feel entirely real, especially in their contradictory fear of the Winters’ powers and desperate hope that the sisters will heal their ailments. Fans of historical fiction with a focus on American folklore will warm to the enigmatic characters of Lawrenceville.
Takeaway: Historical fiction fans will be riveted by this immersive portrait of medicine and superstition in 19th-century rural Georgia.
Great for fans of Adriana Trigiani, Jennifer Chiaverini.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: -
Solid writing and strong characters buoy this examination of a captivating moment in American history when old beliefs encountered the new.
An enthralling, cozy tale set in an era when folklore reigned over science.