Monday, April 13, 2020

The Winter Sisters - Tim Westover

Summary: Dr. Waycross knows bleeding and blistering, the best scientific medicine of 1822. He arrives in the Georgia mountains to bring his modern methods to the superstitious masses. But the local healers, the Winter Sisters, claim to treat yellow fever, consumption, and the hell-roarin' trots just as well as he can. Some folks call the sisters herb women; some call them witches. Waycross calls them quacks.

But when the threat of rabies--incurable and fatal--comes to town, Dr. Waycross and the Winter sisters must combine their science and superstition in a desperate search for a remedy. Can they find a miracle cure, or has the age of miracles passed? (Pic from

My Review: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This book was a trip! First of all, I don’t know if you’re squeamish about medical things, but this book is essentially about medicine and medical practices in the mid 1800’s. And, ya’ll, it’s intense. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the podcast “Sawbones” (and I actually haven’t listened to it for awhile, although I enjoyed it when I did), this book is like that in that it talks a lot about old-timey medical treatments—bloodletting, balancing the humors, amputation, etc. Eesh. Sometimes this was hard to read just because I know that, unfortunately, these things are not made up. Medical practice back then was…scary. If the ailment didn’t kill you, the treatment might.

Despite the horror of medical treatments in the past, there was actually quite a bit of humor in this book, and I loved that Westover didn’t take himself too seriously. There were serious things happening, but there were also a lot of tongue in cheek things that happened, and some things that were just really funny. I mean, you can’t have an isolated town back in the 1800’s without some funny characters and some funny happenings. There were definitely some good characters in this town and they were a nice reprieve from the sometimes disturbing medical treatments.

The heart of this book is of course, the Winter sisters. Although the preacher thought they were witches (and maybe a few of his strictest followers agreed with him), most everybody else agreed that they were just women who were well-versed in medicinal treatments of the more natural variety. The three sisters were all different and had different strengths (some more mysterious and witchy-feeling than others), and that made for some interesting reading about how they all addressed medical issues and who would see which sister depending on what ailed them. The collaboration of the new doctor and the Winter sisters, especially Rebecca, was a great addition to the story and brought up a lot of interesting questions regarding “modern” medicine versus the practices with herbs and tinctures from the “witches.” There is definitely some magical realism going on, and I would have liked to hear more about that and I wished the book had taken a deeper turn down that road.

As it was the heart of the book, one of the things that I wish this book would have addressed more is the Winter sisters themselves. We see almost everything through the eyes of Dr. Waycross, and he obviously has his own beliefs about medicine and how people with various ailments should be treated. The Winter sisters were a deep well of stories, and I think that there could have been a prequel to this book discussing them and their ways and back story. In fact, I think they were more interesting than the doctor. I would have liked to hear more about them. That is my main complaint about the book, actually. At the crux of it the story is about who we trust—do we judge people based on rumors, or the fact that they are maybe on the outskirts of society or do we trust what they do?  In this case it was couched as what is better—“modern” medicine, or folk medicine? However, some of Rebecca’s treatments were, ahem, ahead of their time (trying not to give anything away), and so I’m not sure that this was a discussion that was actually successful. I think it would have been a better focus of the book on why the town didn’t trust the Winter sisters, because it wasn’t really discussed much. Sure, there’s always the old trope of weird unmarried women living off by themselves in the woods together doing who knows what (said with judgey eyes), but I’m not sure that led to all of the hate. And, in fact, it turns out that the hate was mostly projected by the preacher. Everybody else seemed to be fine with the Winter Sisters. In the end, I think the author tried to create a situation where there were people who weren’t trusted because of their station, but it didn’t really pan out as planned. The doctor was not a super interesting character and was rather one-dimensional. Hearing more and directly from the Winter sisters (I would have loved a rotating point of view from each of them) would have been much more compelling, IMHO.

Although it is not deeply discussed, there is the issue of addiction addressed in this book. I think it’s pretty obvious what that is once you start reading that book, but for now I don’t want to give it away. Be sure to read the author’s notes at the end of the book in regards to this, because it was interesting.

If you enjoy reading about female characters who are on the fringes, or even historical fiction about medical practices (whether “modern” or folk) I think you would enjoy this book.

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the sensitive reader: This book is pretty clean, if you can handle some scary medical treatments. Eesh. These are not so deeply discussed that they’re seriously gory or anything, but they are definitely not for the faint of heart.

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