Sunflower Sisters: a gripping saga of three different women

Martha Hall Kelly
Martha Hall Kelly © Jeffrey Mosier Photography

Topselling American author Martha Hall Kelly has just launched her new book Sunflower Sisters, hailed by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Wingate as: “weaving an exquisite tapestry of women determined to defy the moulds the world has made for them.”

In early 1861 Georgeanna Woolsey knows she’s not cut out for the demure life, and finds her passion for nursing just as the US Civil War breaks out. 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.

Disgruntled and unhappy in her marriage, Anne-May is forced to run the Peeler Plantation when her husband joins the Union Army and her brother enlists with the Confederates. Now in charge, she follows her own ambitions and desires.

Sunflowers were used as a sign of danger on the American underground railroad and placed on fences and various places.

Martha Hall Kelly answered some questions.

Have a Go News: Sunflower Sisters is a sweeping historical story of three very different women set during the American Civil War. How relevant is their story today, especially with events in the US in recent years?

Martha: I had no idea Sunflower Sisters would be so relevant today. With the rise of White Nationalism, it’s more important than ever to revisit why we fought the American Civil War, to end slavery. There has been a resurgence of interest about our bloodiest war, since we seem to be replaying the same issues that we had in 1861.

Have a Go News: When did you start your research, how extensive was it and where did it take you?

Martha: I started researching Caroline Ferriday and her family back in 2000, which led to my first novel Lilac
. The research for this book, about her Woolsey ancestors during the Civil War took about four years to research. I read one hundred of the family’s letters, which took quite a while. I also visited former plantations, now museums, researched at Gettysburg where the battle took place and places like the former slave market in Charleston, South Carolina.

Have a Go News: Georgeanna, Jemma and Anne-May are very different women. What qualities do you consider they have in common?

Martha: All three are determined to get what they think will make them happy. Georgy wants to be a nurse, which at times is a bit of a disaster. Anne-May, the plantation mistress, has her cap set on a wealthy local merchant who is not her husband and Jemma wants to reunite her enslaved family. They are also all very capable women – not victims – and go about enacting change. They also have all these issues with men, which I think keeps it interesting.

Have a Go News: What can we learn from their lives today?

Martha: I think we can learn that though our lives are difficult we can always do something about our problems, and to not take adversity lying down. And that matter not how bad something is, you’ve done you can always be redeemed if you admit your failings.

Have a Go News: How long did it take to write Sunflower Sisters? America has a colourful history.

Martha: Very colourful. It took me four years or so. I didn’t know much about the Civil War, so I had to start at square one. I read a lot of books written in the 1860s, including an illustrated Civil War sex manual, which was truly bizarre.

Have a Go News: Tell us a little about what you were doing when the book was launched in late March. What was your schedule?

Martha: Sadly, we could not do an in person book tour but Random House set up the next best thing, a virtual tour. People can find it on my web site: The nice thing is, until I can safely come to Australia, we can all be together online despite the distance.

Have a Go News: Are you planning another book? How do you relax when not writing?

Martha: Yes, I have two more books in the works with Random House, a Cold War novel and a contemporary thriller. Both have been so much fun to write. I don’t relax as much as I probably should, but I like to walk my dog Ollie and ride my bike and read (right now thrillers) and get lost in a great cable series like Ozark. My husband and I are still reeling after bingeing that one.

Sunflower Sisters is available from bookshops
Sunflower Sisters is available from bookshops

Sunflower Sisters (Bantam Australia), $ available from good bookshops.

Ed’s note: I have read both Lilac Girls and Lost Roses, two exceptionally good reads particularly if you like historical fiction as I