—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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Excerpted from "Winter Sisters"
Copyright © 2018 Robin Oliveira.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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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?