Winter Sisters: A Novel

Winter Sisters: A Novel

by Robin Oliveira
Winter Sisters: A Novel

Winter Sisters: A Novel

by Robin Oliveira


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"Stunning. . . Oliveira writes with feeling."

--The New York Times Book Review

"[An] engrossing story. . . that feels utterly timely."
--People, "The Best New Books"

New York, 1879: An epic blizzard descends on Albany, devastating the city. When the snow finally settles, two newly orphaned girls are missing. Determined not to give up hope, Dr. Mary Sutter, a former Civil War surgeon, searches for the two sisters. When what happened to them is finally revealed, Dr. Sutter must fight the most powerful of Albany's citizens, risking personal and public danger as she seeks to protect the fragile, putting at risk loves and lives in her quest to right unimaginable wrongs.

As contemporary as it is historic, Winter Sisters is part gripping thriller, part family saga, and ultimately a story of trauma and resilience that explores the tremendous good and unspeakable evil of which humans are capable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399564260
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 291,266
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robin Oliveira is the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter and I Always Loved You. She holds a BA in Russian and studied at the Pushkin Language Institute in Moscow. She received an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is also a registered nurse, specializing in critical care. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Two days before Emma and Claire O'Donnell disappeared, a light snow fell from the dawn sky above Albany, New York, almost as a warning mist. Later, people would recall that the flakes were mistakenly perceived as a lark, a last dusting in what had been an unusually cold winter. The year 1879 was already proving to be a surprising one: on March 3, the first woman lawyer had argued a case before the Supreme Court, and despite the wretched cold, there had been an abnormally scant snowfall. Just a foot since November, which had then melted away on three strangely warm days in early February, though the thick ice on the Hudson River had not yet broken.

Emma and Claire O'Donnell were ten and seven years old, respectively. In concession to the snow, they wore boots, but because the day was already warming they donned only a light coat over their spring dresses. Their parents were similarly attired: boots in lieu of lighter, leather shoes, a woolen coat for Bonnie, a thin cloth work jacket for David. The O'Donnells lived in three rooms on the first floor of a row house on Elm Street. Every morning they left the house together, Emma and Claire for the Van Zandt Grammar School, Bonnie to her millinery shop on State Street, and David to the Lumber District.

Their farewell on the morning of March tenth at the school doors was unremarkable as farewells go: a brief wave, an affectionate reminder for Emma to take care of Claire, and noisy reluctance from the sisters, for it was annoying to have to go inside on such a splendid day. There was little reason, any of them believed, to mark the occasion: they would see one another at home for their midday meal, as they always did.

David and Bonnie walked on together through the light, powdery snow the five blocks to State Street, Albany's wide boulevard, which was graced at its summit by the new capitol building, still unfinished after twelve years of construction. It was modeled after the Louvre Palace in Paris, but its outer walls had only just been completed, giving it a faintly apologetic mien, as its facade was still missing a promised grand stairway and a plethora of decorative friezes and gargoyles. Its interior third and fourth floors were still barren hollows of scaffolding and echo. The exasperated legislature, tired of waiting, had preemptively moved into the first two, anticipating years of noise and headache ahead.

The businesses of importance-with the exception of lumber and railroading-proceeded apace below the capitol, on State Street. A languorous hill, it eased from the capitol heights down to the Hudson River, spanned here by two railroad bridges, one north and one south. The waterway had first been named the North River by the Dutch, because it allowed passage northward from the Manhattan harbor, but it had long since been renamed after its discoverer, though the early moniker persisted in Manhattan City, whose centric gaze rarely extended to the wider world.

Albany's principal economic engine was that it offered a decent port on the only navigable river a steamboat day's voyage from the bustling trade center. A stubborn Flemish perseverance had long characterized the city's public personality, which had sustained the founding Dutch through the threat of native unrest, the encroaching French, and finally the conquering English, who captured New Netherlands-essentially all of northeast America-in 1664 and renamed the inauspiciously named yet tenacious city of Beverwijck, Albany. That same perseverance had also sustained the city through year after year of seasonal floods, for though the river was an economic boon, it was also Albany's watery Achilles' heel.

But today, Monday, March 10, it was snowing, and the river was still frozen, and merchants, bankers, printers, engravers, tobacconists, reporters, druggists, lawyers, and one milliner were all converging on State Street to empty mousetraps, sweep refuse from thresholds, and deposit money into their empty tills. The mercantile neighbors waxed convivial with one another about the snow shower. Smiles, all around, and a shaking of heads. Albany.

David O'Donnell accompanied Bonnie to her shop at 59 State Street, as he did every morning. His pride at her success was exceeded only by his pride in his daughters, Emma and Claire, though if pressed, he might confess a partiality toward Emma, whose stubborn spiritedness he encouraged perhaps more than he ought. But the pressing thing now was the snow drifting lightly from the skies, and the question of whether or not it had been advisable to have erected the new awning over the mullioned shop window. Under too much accumulation of the white stuff, it would founder. But as they assessed the sky for clues, a patch of blue opened above the river, settling the issue. David kissed Bonnie's cheek, and taking his leave, descended the slippery sidewalk toward Broadway on his way to the Lumber District, where his work as a stevedore had shaped his strong body into an anvil.

"You'll not forget dinner tonight at the Sutters'?" Bonnie called after him.

"I mean the Stipps'!"

After twelve years, she still couldn't get it straight. Her beloved adopted family had grown. No one in the city of Albany knew whether to call them the Sutters or the Stipps, either. The O'Donnells were generally believed to be their blood relations, though that was not true, even as much as Bonnie wished it were.

"And if you stop for a pint on the way home," she threatened, "don't bother to come calling. I'll bolt the door against you."

Turning, David raised his arm in salute, a teasing grin skittering across his weathered face. "Dinner?" he said. "What dinner?"

"David O'Donnell, it's your fault, you know, that Emma is such a scrapper."

But Bonnie stood under her green-striped awning and admired the man as he sauntered away. David was her second husband. Her first husband, Jake Miles, had disappeared in the War of the Rebellion, and none too glad had she been to see him gone. For a brief time, she'd been in love with Christian Sutter, Amelia's only son, but he had died early in the war. And then David had spotted her on the street one day, and made a pest of himself until she fell in love with him. He had given her Emma and Claire, whom she cherished. She crossed herself to honor the two children she'd had with Jake. They had died as infants, a sadness from her unlucky past. And she made a last cross to honor Elizabeth Fall: Amelia Sutter's grandchild, whom she loved just as much as she loved her own daughters, and whom she missed, for the brilliant girl had gone with her grandmother far away to Paris to study violin at the conservatory there. Bonnie was worried about her. Lately, Elizabeth's letters had confided great sadness.

"Six o'clock! Remember!" Bonnie called after her husband.

After turning and waving, David cut down Montgomery and dashed across the tangle of railroad tracks at Spencer, then followed Water Street into the Lumber District, crossing the narrow lock bridge that separated the terminus of the Erie Canal from the port basin. A sudden, sharp gust of wind chilled the two thousand laborers pouring into the fifty lumberyards on the hundred-acre island, carved between the Erie Canal and the Hudson. David worked for Gerritt Van der Veer, the preeminent lumber baron in the city. Gerritt S. Van der Veer, it could be said, ruled Albany. Advertisements for his white pine shone down from nearly every brick building lining the grand commercial boulevards of Western Avenue and State Street. the best white pine in the world is at van der veer & son lumber! While Van der Veer was a fair employer, his temper could rage when things went wrong.

This year, an unanticipated excess inventory of milled white pine had wintered over, and Van der Veer wanted to ship it the minute the frozen river opened to navigation, which he believed would be soon. His overseer, James Harley, a more reasonable man, nonetheless shouted over the rising gusts to the assembled hundred laborers of Van der Veer Lumber that this morning's first task was to clear the accumulating snow from the stacks. So David and the other longshoremen climbed the towers of plywood and joists and four-by-fours and got to work.

In their classroom at the Van Zandt Grammar School, Emma and Claire were seated two rows apart. They had been gazing out the windows at the snow, which was beginning to turn heavier, but Emma, the oldest, sighed and exchanged a despairing glance with Claire before turning her attention back to their teacher, a recent graduate of the State Normal School, who was teaching some complicated math to the older students. Claire studied Emma from the corner of her eye. It pleased Claire that people said they looked alike, with their cascades of copper hair and bright blue eyes, but that was where their resemblance ended, Claire believed. Emma was so much more clever that she was. As Emma leaned over her paper to solve a raft of division problems, Claire pretended to do the same, but instead she was secretly thinking about the party that night at the Stipps'.

Five long blocks away, Bonnie was contemplating the party, too. It was their annual celebration of the opening of her shop. This year was the sixth, and it was she who ought to be hosting since Amelia Sutter was away with Elizabeth in Paris, but Mary Stipp had insisted on continuing the annual tradition of hosting the party at their home, even in the absence of her mother and niece. It was Amelia who had provided the initial funds. Bonnie had repaid her debt long ago, but the party had become a celebration not only of Amelia's generosity, but of the families' long friendship, close ties, and remade lives. And then there was the fact that Mary Sutter Stipp had delivered both Emma and Claire, and one of her babies from Jake, who had died. Their tight bonds could never be broken.

Outside, the light dimmed as the fluffy flakes turned beady and began to pour from the sky. Casting a wary eye toward the window, Bonnie resolved to leave her shop earlier than she usually did to pick up the cake at Mariano's Bakery for tonight, but she wasn't really worried. It was March, after all, nearly spring. The snow had to let up soon. And she had work to do. She finished dusting her showcase and arranging her worktable, permitting herself a small smile of self-congratulation as she sat down to put the last touches on the hat she had been decorating for her best customer, Viola Van der Veer, the wife of Gerritt Van der Veer, David's employer and the richest man in Albany. Not that long ago-was it really twenty years?-Bonnie had been an ignorant farm girl, and now she was making hats for a woman whose patronage had ensured her success, because when Viola Van der Veer wanted something, the rest of Albany society did, too, not so much out of affection for her, but as a mark of financial equality. That collective desire had provided for, among other things, the excess funds to purchase the cherished awning. Despite the snow, Bonnie expected that Mrs. Van der Veer might stop in today, as she often did, to chat with her as she worked. The society woman's loneliness had come as a revelation, especially given Mrs. Van der Veer's standing in the community, which recently Bonnie had learned Mrs. Van der Veer considered more a chore than a position she prized. Mostly, Bonnie was honored to be the recipient of Mrs. Van der Veer's sometimes mournful confidences, and more than once she had offered the tearful woman her shoulder.

The new wide-brimmed garden hat, a style that would set to advantage Mrs. Van der Veer's tiny figure, was already laden with white egret plumage and exuberant silk peonies. Bonnie marveled at how her customers seemed oblivious of her tricks. All she had to do was juxtapose a pair of complementary colors, offer the surprise of a new pattern, or more importantly, disclose which of a client's friends-or enemies-had purchased a far superior quality of velvet, and the sale was done. In Albany society, Bonnie had learned, superiority mattered. Hard won, reaped with unsheathed claws and an enigmatic smile in ballrooms and dining rooms across the city, who was who was the business of those women, and if she, a former farm girl, provided ammunition to the struggle, then all the better. She paused and took stock. The addition of a hummingbird would finish the hat well. It was an embellishment that Viola Van der Veer loved, and Bonnie often finished her hats with that signature detail. Now she tested first one, then another of the featherlight birds, setting them in a tiny nest of straw, choosing finally a ruby-throated one, its wings aflight.

Bonnie was still holding it up to admire when a violent burst of wind pushed open the door and the iridescent bird flew out of her fingers and up toward the ceiling. So much snow was suddenly spilling from the skies that she could hardly see a thing. She fumbled for matches to light the gas jet, but a curtain of darkness had fallen. The snowfall was no longer a mere sprinkling, a last reflexive fit of winter. It was a blizzard. Bonnie instantly thought of Claire and Emma. Would they shut the schools for a storm this foul, or keep the children instead? It didn't matter. She would go get them. Unthinking, she jammed Viola Van der Veer's unfinished hat on her head and fled outside, pulling on her thin coat. Instantly, the churning wind spun her around. She regained her balance and bent low, taking first one step, then another, into the maelstrom.

In the Lumber District, James Harley, the overseer, hollered above the roar of wind for everyone to get out. Hearing Harley's cries, David leaped to the ground from the top of the stack he'd been clearing and headed toward the Lock Bridge with hundreds of his fellow laborers, each one doubting his ability to find his way home in the sudden whiteout. Despite growing panic, the men worked together, linking arms and edging across the narrow Lock Bridge, made hazardous by the accumulating snow. The snaillike pace of escape was excruciating. When it was finally his turn, David bowed his head and shuffled across, praying not to be blown into the canal. But once he successfully negotiated the bridge, it soon became impossible to know what was ground and what was sky. Gravity lied. Senses failed. By blessed dumb luck, David navigated the twelve long blocks back to State Street, staying to the lee of the buildings and marking his path by memory, his collar turned up against the frigid cold. He blundered on, finally reaching State Street, where he traveled perhaps a dozen steps up the sidewalk before he lost his sense of direction and veered into the street. The blinded driver of a heavily laden dray never saw him, nor did he grasp that the cry he heard and the sudden jolt of his sliding wheels meant that he had crushed a man.

Reading Group Guide

A disastrous blizzard blasts the city of Albany, New York, in 1879, and in its chaotic wake, two newly orphaned girls, Emma and Claire O’Donnell, go missing. In the following days, Dr. Mary Stipp and her husband, William, physicians and friends of the O’Donnell family, try in vain to locate the children. Initially, the police offer to search for the girls, but after six weeks of Mary’s relentless queries, they give up.

The city faces another disaster when the frozen river thaws, causing devastating floods, and when Mary and William return home from treating flood victims, Emma and Claire are waiting for them. The tale they tell is dramatic—a man has been holding them captive in a basement—but the story told by Emma’s body is all too clear to Mary. The ten-year-old has been raped. As the Sutters struggle to unravel the truth behind the girls’ trauma, a prime suspect emerges, and Albany prepares for a sensational trial. Emma, who at ten is at the legal age of sexual consent, must face down those who consider her survival as proof against her. Winter Sisters is a complex and suspenseful historical novel that is both a captivating story and a commentary on the laws that have, for far too long, oppressed and endangered women.

1. Agency, the ability to act on one’s own accord and determine one’s own life, was not something most nineteenth-century women or girls possessed. Not medically, not legally, not professionally, not in their public lives, and many not in their private lives. What degree of agency are the various women characters in Winter Sisters able to seize for themselves? To what dangers—emotional, physical, social—are they then subjected as a result? How does this theme of agency play out in Elizabeth’s subplot? In Viola’s?

2. Mary drugs Emma and Claire in order to examine them. Is this another violation of Emma and Claire’s agency or is it an act of compassion that protects them from further violation? Did Mary have a choice? What would have happened, do you think, if she hadn’t drugged them?

3. Child trafficking around the globe remains a contemporary and enormous problem. That problem is portrayed in Winter Sisters in an historical context. Does the historical lens magnify, minimize, distort, or clarify this monumental global crisis?

4. The reprehensible actions of the antagonist are portrayed in a way that leaves no doubt as to what occurred. Are the details of the crime sensationalized in any way? Did the author focus on the crime’s emotional repercussions enough? How did the novel’s realism affect you?

5. How do you feel about Harley’s escape from judgment? Do men today walk away from similar crimes unscathed?

6. The trial questions in Winter Sisters were pulled from nineteenth-century rape trial transcripts, which record the prosecutorial and defense techniques of inflicting shame, intimidation, blame, and the questioning of reputation and veracity. Does the trial in Winter Sisters seem contemporary or not? How much or little has changed around the prosecution of the crime or the way its victims are treated?

7. What psychological circumstances are at play in the story that might allow for Emma to overcome her trauma? What characters’ actions help, and which hurt her recovery? In what ways does Emma save herself?

8. Describe how the “good” men in the novel underpin, and do not overwhelm, the actions of the women in their lives. In what ways are the gender roles flipped in Winter Sisters? How pivotal is Mary’s role? Jakob’s?

9. Why do you think William, and not Amelia, took Emma to climb the cliff in Cape Cod? Was that the right decision?

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