Book Review: Sisters of Shiloh
By: Kathy Hepinstall & Becky Hepinstall Hilliker
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 3, 2015
Page Count: 256
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via Edelweiss
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction
Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall was one of my favorite reads of 2012 so I was ecstatic when I heard about this novel. Hepinstall's novels give voices to the women of the Civil War era. Her stories are compelling and well researched. I also found it interesting that she co-wrote this one with her sister. Furthermore, this topic is close to my heart. In undergrad, my Senior thesis focused on the experience of Appalachian women during the Civil War. Since that time, I have been fascinated with learning more about how women dealt with the war and those who took up arms to support their men and a cause.
Libby is a young, beautiful wife who constantly worries about the fate of her husband, Arden, while he is at war. Arden isn't just her husband - he is her best friend and soulmate. In many ways, Libby lost herself the moment she first laid eyes on Arden. He carried her soul away and melded it with his own. Libby can scarcely imagine a life without Arden. She moves back home with her parents and siblings while Arden is away to keep her mind from dreading into dangerous territory.
Not everyone in Libby's family was excited the day she wed Arden. In fact, Libby's older sister, Josephine, can't stand him. Josephine sees Arden as the obstacle that keeps her sister's attentions and affections away from the family. She longs for the days of her youth when she was Libby's trusted companion.
Libby's worst fear is realized at the Battle of Sharpsburg; Arden has been killed. Libby loses herself to grief, but manages to climb out of the melancholy long enough to find a burning rage to sustain her. She decides that she will avenge her husband by killing one Yankee for every year he lived. Libby sets her sights seeing the ground run red with the blood of twenty one men. Josephine learns of Libby's crazy plan and she cannot bear to watch her sister go down this path alone. Josephine fears she will never see Libby again if she doesn't go along to keep a watchful eye on her. The pair concoct a dangerous plan and transform themselves into Thomas and Joseph. The sisters soon land themselves in the Confederate Army.
The majority of the novel occurs while the women are hiding in the military ranks. Life in the camps is far from ideal. Josephine, in particular, has a difficult time adjusting to the life of the soldier. She has no desire to fire her weapon and snuff out the life of another human being. The carnage also doesn't sit well with her, but Libby appears to thrive on the blood and chaos. At the camp, the sisters befriend several men who will play an integral role in the training and lives of the two women.
While Libby is seeking to forget the one she loves, Josephine finds herself falling in love with a fellow soldier. Her inner conflict is laced with tension. To tell the object of her affection her true gender would mean that Libby's quest for revenge could be cut short. Josephine must struggle between the loyalty she feels for her sister and loyalty to her heart. Her choices are never easy, but I admired that she was so faithful and steadfast. I don't know that I could have been as patient with Libby.
Another aspect I found to be creepily appealing was Arden. He appears on several occasions to Libby and whispers hateful vendettas. It was unclear to me whether he was a ghost or simply a manifestation of Libby's grief. Regardless, Arden managed to keep his presence in my mind from start to finish.
In addition to the personal journeys of the sisters and the bonds they forge with their fellow soldiers, I was fascinated by the glimpses of Stonewall Jackson that appeared from time to time. He was a quirky fellow and that shines through loud and clear on the moments when he steps onto the page.
Lastly, I was fascinated with the way death was approached in this novel. I have been slowly reading This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust which focuses on how the perception of death altered during the Civil War era. Death touched the lives of every American in some form during this time period and altered their views of life and violence. Disease was a more likely culprit than a bullet for death during the war; this concept is also explored in Sisters of Shiloh. I enjoyed comparing Faust's nonfiction to the Hepinstalls' fiction.
Sisters of Shiloh is a haunting, bittersweet tale that brings to life the horrors of the Civil War. I highly recommend it for all fans of this time period and those who enjoy historical fiction. It's nice to see history from the perspective of voices that have largely gone unheard. Numerous women in both the North and the South fought bravely, but they are often not the ones we learn about in history class. The writing in this one is beautiful in spite of some of the macabre moments.
One Last Gripe: A sense of trepidation and fear wrapped itself around my heart for a vast majority of this one. It forced me to read quickly because I needed to know the fate of Libby and Josephine. I wish that I had been able to linger in some sections.
Favorite Thing About This Book: I enjoyed seeing the horrors of war through the eyes of a female participant.
First Sentence: Libby waited for her dead husband in the woods, her breath making clouds in the cold night air.
Favorite Character: Josephine
Least Favorite Character: Libby at times
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 pitting 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.