A best-selling novelist enlists her own sister to bring us the story of two Southern sisters, disguised as men, who join the Confederate Army—one seeking vengeance on the battlefield, the other finding love.
In a war that pitted brother against brother, two sisters choose their own battle. Joseph and Thomas are fresh recruits for the Confederate Army, daring to join the wild fray that has become the seemingly endless Civil War, sharing everything with their fellow soldiers—except the secret that would mean their undoing: they are sisters.
Before the war, Joseph and Thomas were Josephine and Libby. But that bloodiest battle, Antietam, leaves Libby to find her husband, Arden, dead. She vows vengeance, dons Arden’s clothes, and sneaks off to enlist with the Stonewall Brigade, swearing to kill one Yankee for every year of his too-short life. Desperate to protect her grief-crazed sister, Josephine insists on joining her. Surrounded by flying bullets, deprivation, and illness, the sisters are found by other dangers: Libby is hurtling toward madness, haunted and urged on by her husband’s ghost; Josephine is falling in love with a fellow soldier. She lives in fear both of revealing their disguise and of losing her first love before she can make her heart known to him.
In her trademark “vibrant” (Washington Post Book World) and “luscious” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) prose, Kathy Hepinstall joins with her sister Becky to show us the hopes of love and war, the impossible-to-sever bonds of sisterhood, and how what matters most can both hurt us and heal us.
Arden, I remember a summer day when we were young and you were lying on your back in the grass, and all I can think of now is that nothing in the meadow told you that in five years you'd be dead. No clues at all. Not from the daisies or the clover or the birds or the wind. Not from the clouds or the dog whose ears you scratched. Not from God.
There were Yankee boys, then, in the North. Lying in meadows. Scratching dogs' ears. Time would pass and one day they would put on their shoes and come find you.
Now I've come to find them.
Sisters of Shiloh is the story of Libby Beale, a young woman maddened by grief who disguises herself as a man so she can funnel her anger into vengeance by joining the Confederate army and killing one Yankee for every year of her husband's too-short life. But she's not going alone. Her older sister, Josephine, is going too, to ensure that Libby comes back home, for Josephine can't imagine a life where she is not the plain and dutiful sister to the beautiful and willful Libby.
The sisters run away and enlist shortly after the Battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in our nation's history. While Libby fits right in, relishing her new role as a soldier and a killing machine, Josephine feels increasingly isolated. That feeling deepens even more when she realizes her sister has done far more than simply impersonate a man; she has channeled herself into her dead husband, to the point where Josephine can't tell where Arden ends and Libby begins. Libby's descent into madness couples with the horrors of war and Josephine's own guilt over Arden's death to form a morass of conflicting, soul-crushing feelings that Josephine must wade through to maintain her own sanity. Throw in her growing love for a fellow soldier, a love she can never act upon without revealing her identity and getting the sisters kicked out of the army--an unforgivable sin in Libby's eyes--and Josephine's internal struggles become almost as large as that of the war itself.
For a long time, I thought this was going to end up a 3-star read for me for several reasons. First, I can't say I'm the biggest fan of the writing style. Lots of POV switches and short scenes lent a disjointed feeling to the novel, but that is balanced out by gritty and eye-opening descriptions of camp life and stunningly profound passages about war and its effects. Second, the subject matter is already so dark that at times I felt like Libby's madness on top of that was overkill, and I started to get rather annoyed with her, but toward the end, the authors did a great job of making me understand how closely she had been connected to her husband (and that it wasn't a good thing) and that her temporary spiral into darkness was almost necessary for her to be able to come out on the other side of it and move past her grief. And finally, it took me awhile to form a connection with the sisters, but as the story drew closer to the end, everything sort of gelled together for me, and I was on the edge of my seat to see how everything would play out.
I was moved the most by Josephine's struggle to hold on to her femininity, which she had already thought was somewhat lacking, in the midst of so many men and so many horrible situations. I enjoyed watching her confidence emerge, watching her finally become her own person instead of thinking of herself only as a sister or a daughter. And I was grateful for her budding romance with a fellow soldier. In a novel full of blood and guts and death and despair, that shining bright spot was very much appreciated, and I held on to that hopefulness right up to the very last page and the novel's poignant and satisfying conclusion.
I don't think this novel will be for everyone due to its darkness, but for its focus on the sisters' internal struggles and the life of a war-time soldier, it's a must-read for lovers of women's fiction and Civil War history.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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