I’m an only child and I married an only child. So here we are—two only children parenting our daughters, puzzled at the simultaneous sibling bond and rivalry. We’re lost when they bicker, but we swoon when we witness their massive love for each other. Sisters are special, without a doubt. When I see the girls holding hands, writing love notes to each other, and cuddling on the couch I know I’m witnessing something big. These two girls love each other like toast loves butter. If they were ever separated I know they would suffer.
The complexity of sisterhood and suffering are dominant themes in Sisters of Shiloh. Written by two sisters, Kathy Hepinstall and Becky Hepinstall Hilliker, Sisters of Shiloh is a gripping and bloody, but romantic novel set in the Civil War. Fans of historical fiction and Southern lore will be drawn in to the story of Libby and Josephine, disguised as men, who join the Stonewall Brigade to avenge a husband’s death and protect an unforgiveable secret. Central to the story—bigger than the gristly war over secession—is the limit of sisterly love. The book asks: how far would you go to protect your sister?
Josephine, a quiet and chip-toothed girl coming of age in Virginia, loves and depends on her younger sister Libby. Libby, sweetly feminine and pretty, is courted by many, but prefers Josephine’s company. That is, until Arden, a brash neighbor’s son, changes their dynamic. Josephine is on the outside of their young love and grows increasingly frustrated at Arden’s ability to draw Libby into his world so completely that Libby is no longer herself.
Years pass. Arden and Libby’s friendship grows into an all-consuming love. They marry and set up house in a small home. Josephine assists in her father’s dentist practice and withdraws from her sister. Arden, vehemently against the Union, joins the Confederate ranks as a soldier in the famous Stonewall Brigade. And it’s here amid heinous bloodshed and hardship that the story turns. It’s not a spoiler to say that Arden dies—just read the opening lines of Libby defending herself against Arden’s ghost.
What happens next reverses the “wife grieves husband’s death” story arc into a vengeful and almost unbelievable tale of Libby joining the Confederate army to kill 21 Yankees—a death for every year of Arden’s gone-too-soon life. Josephine, unwilling to stay home while Libby likely dies in battle, binds her breasts, dresses like a man, and enlists with her sister.
The sisters struggle to fulfill promises through horrid camp conditions, fear of being discovered as women (not young Thomas and Joseph willing to die for the South), and barbaric fighting. Libby’s eye-for-an-eye obsession is flanked by Josephine’s growing love for a fellow soldier, Wesley.
Will you like it?
I’ll admit incredulity at two Southern belles from an anti-slavery family fighting in the Confederate Army as men. But women fought in the Civil War. While their exact numbers are uncertain, history does make the story plausible. With the crisp prose and soap opera plot, I suspended disbelief and became invested in the sisters’ survival. The writing is lyrical without excessive, flowery descriptions.
She loved him that much, in a way that made no space for herself, as though he were a full glass of tea and she was the piece of ice that would cause an overspill onto the tablecloth.
What Arden had done to Libby’s God made her resent him most. That deity, shaped and formed under the tutelage of her gentle father, was a fair, benevolent God whose strict expectations regarding the Ten Commandments were tempered by an all-consuming adoration of all His children. Arden had darkened and narrowed the eyes of this God, added rage to His purpose and gave Him a taste for Yankee blood. His God—now her God—was unloving and out for revenge.
Overall, I think the weight of the sweeping wartime plot overcomes a few flaws. Why didn’t the family look harder for Libby and Josephine? And how could a passive young wife like Libby channel grief into an unwavering fortitude to battle in a merciless war? Still, I enjoyed the novel. I’m a sucker for an unlikely romance, so it’s no surprise that the Josephine and Wesley saga grabbed my attention far more than Libby and Arden’s devotion beyond the grave. I believe book clubs will get miles of discussion on revenge at all costs and the lengths sisters will go to protect each other.
Book review disclaimer
I received an advance reading copy of Sisters of Shiloh. I was not compensated in any way for my review.