Robin Oliverira

Child after child was scooped into welcoming arms, but no one claimed Emma and Claire. Stunned by the cold, the two girls (7 and 10 years old) shivered on the iceberg of snow blown up against the school steps until Emma took hold of Claire’s hand and forged a mountain goat path over frozen drifts in the direction of their home.

Penguin | Feb 2018
Hardcover: 368 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / 19th Century Women’s Rights
ARC e-book from Edelweiss

In Winter Sisters, Dr. Mary Sutter [My Name is Mary Sutter (2010)] returns and is now married to her Civil War colleague, Dr. William Stipp.


The catastrophic 1879 blizzard that ravages the lives and landscape of the American Northeast in the opening chapters of  Winter Sisters is based on the Great Blizzard of ’88

On this day in 1888, one of the worst blizzards in American history kills more than 400 people and dumps as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas. . .

On March 10, 1888 temperatures in the Northeast hovered in the mid-50s. But on March 11, cold Arctic air from Canada collided with Gulf air from the south and temperatures plunged. Rain turned to snow and winds reached hurricane-strength levels. By midnight on March 11, gusts were recorded at 85 miles. . .



It is early March of 1879 in Albany, New York and 13 years after the Civil War. The Reconstruction period saw many new “families” formed from the remnants of the carnage; neighbors, distant cousins, siblings and orphans found comfort and solace creating a whole from their broken individual pieces. One such post-war family includes Drs. Mary (Sutter) and William Stipp and longtime family friends Bonnie and David O’Donnell along with their two beautiful young daughters, Claire (7) and Emma (10).

The Albany weather is balmy for early March and the O’Donnells head out for the day dressed for early Spring; Bonnie to her millinery shop, David to the lumber yard and the girls to school.

By mid-morning, snow flurries suddenly appear. By mid-afternoon a catastrophic blizzard cripples the town. Temperatures plummet. Winds rage. Snow, measuring in feet not inches, races sideways striking windows and any unfortunate being outside like silver bullets. Visibility zero.

Claire and Emma O’Donnell are trapped, along with their classmates, in the Van Zandt Grammar School; their parents unable to retrieve them. As the storm finally abates, desperate parents race to the school to bring their children home. No one notices the two little girls amid the sky-high drifts left waiting for their parents in the bitter cold.

The O’Donnell family has disappeared. Bonnie’s body is found in a snow drift outside her millinery shop. David O’Donnell’s frozen body is found in the street near home. Claire and Emma are never found.

Like many other devastated families, Mary Sutter Stipp begins a desperate search for the girls; her now famous take-no-prisoners style testing the ire and patience of the male dominate community. Mary’s life’s exposes the struggles of women in general, and poor women in particular to survive and thrive in a patriarchal society. As she turns over every leaf in her search, she exposes life’s underbelly.

With the warmer weather returning, the Hudson River ice breaks-up and the melted snows from the blizzard cause record setting flooding. In the midst of this new crisis, the girls are found – alive, alone in the freezing waters, and traumatized. As the mysterious whereabouts of the girls is unraveled, the story becomes painful and unspeakable. Yet, the story doesn’t lose its sense of hope as the extended family surrounds the girls with love and patience allowing them to regain a brighter future.

There are some very positive and touching moments that seem especially necessary for the little girls and for the recovery of the other extended family members suffering their own life’s trials.

The story is painfully slow when the blizzard overshadows the lives of the characters but picks up steam when the girls are discovered and diabolical secrets are exposed. I found myself cheering at justice, albeit poorly rendered, when it arrives.

As much as society would like to think that women’s rights and roles have improved over the years, there’s a contemporary awareness that achievements toward equity are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Recommend reading. Many timely themes for book club discussions. The book should be as popular as My Name is Mary Sutter.

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