PUBLICATION DATE: SEPTEMBER 01, 2012
aureen O’Reilly has submitted to the abuse of her landlord for many years, for the sake of her mother and sister’s wellbeing. But when her mother dies and it becomes apparent that the landlord’s son has his eye on Maureen’s thirteen-year-old sister, Katie Rosie, Maureen conspires to escape their clutches once and for all. With just a few coins to their name and a decade-old letter from their father’s friend in New York, the sisters leave Ireland in the hope of a new, better life in the United States. But when they arrive on Ellis Island, finding employment and accommodation isn’t as easy as the women expected. Katie Rose is detained on the island until her chicken pox has passed, and Maureen is left to search for their father’s old friend, Colonel Wakefield. But the Colonel is no longer living, and his son-in-law wants nothing to do with Maureen or her family. With the help of some money lent by a stranger and a woman from the local missionary society, Maureen is able to get a job in a department store and rent a room in a decrepit tenement building. Katie Rose is less than impressed with their living conditions when she’s allowed to enter New York, but that’s the least of Maureen’s worries right now.
Girls from the department store keep disappearing, apparently “promoted” to a better place of employment, but something about their disappearances doesn’t feel right, especially as they seem to be linked to the mysterious stranger who lent Maureen money on Ellis Island. The mystery becomes even more confusing when Maureen is brought into contact with Olivia Wakefield, the daughter of their father’s old friend. Despite her brother-in-law’s disdain for Maureen and her sister, Olivia is determined to help the women. But Maureen is hesitant, especially when Olivia’s brother-in-law, Drake, appears to mixed up in the disappearances at the department store. Does Olivia really want the best for Maureen and Katie Rose, or is something more sinister bubbling under the surface?
The initial synopsis for Band of Sisters gave little of the plot away, which made it all the more appealing and intriguing. By the time I got around to reading the novel, several months after I’d first heard of it, I’d forgotten much of the synopsis and expected it to be merely a light romance about two sisters who emigrated to the United States looking for a fresh start. I haven’t read many novels about European émigrés at the turn of the twentieth century, although I studied the topic enough in high school history classes. But my studies often stopped when the families left their homeland, and prior to reading Band of Sisters, I hadn’t realised how difficult it was to even make it into the United States, let alone find a job or accommodation. Cathy’s details regarding the rigours of Ellis Island inspections made me quite fearful for Maureen and Katie Rose, and the descriptions of their accommodation were also realistically portrayed. My only complaint about the details of Maureen’s arrival in New York would have to be that it seemed remarkably easy for her to forge her application form at Darcy’s Department Store , and get a job on the day she applied. I know that she used the Wakefield name to her advantage, but I did wonder whether the manager or owner of the store wouldn’t have contacted the Wakefields to verify Maureen’s story. Considering all the factors conspiring against her, getting a job so easily didn’t seem entirely realistic.
I was surprised, yet pleasantly so, at the dark turn Band of Sisters took once Maureen was established in her job at the department store. Maureen fled Ireland because she had been forced to prostitute her body to her landlord in order to stop her mother and sister from being evicted, but she hadn’t been aware of how easy it was for many single, newly emigrated women in New York to be forced into selling their bodies for the exact same reasons. Maureen’s determination to save herself and her sister from the plight that awaited them back in Ireland was commendable, as was her desire to protect other women in the same position. But as Maureen delved deeper into the disappearances at her workplace, Band of Sisters challenged my assumptions about prostitution. It’s easy to assume that women are forced into this profession – both then and now – by desperation and reduced circumstances, but how often do we really consider those who truly are forced into the occupation, and are unable to fight back and escape? I genuinely didn’t expect this to be a novel about human trafficking, but the hidden subject seems appropriate, considering how human trafficking is something that is essentially hidden in plain view, both in Darcy’s department store in 1900 and in our seemingly modern, civilised lives today.
I’m torn over how I feel about Katie Rose’s treatment of Maureen. Part of me doesn’t want to believe that she would reject her sister because of the assumptions made about Maureen’s character back in Ireland. Although their community rejected Maureen because of her involvement with her landlord (despite many of them knowing that her “involvement” was never Maureen’s choice and was forced upon her repeatedly), I felt that Katie Rose should have been more sympathetic to everything Maureen had done to protect their family. But, on the other hand, I could understand the jealousy that fuelled Katie Rose’s anger at her sister. Maureen’s beauty appears to attract many men – both a friend from Ireland and a man involved in the trafficking ring – despite her ruined character, while no one is interested in the innocent, pure Katie Rose. Thus, Katie Rose has to assume that these men are only interested in Maureen because of her lack of morals and willingness to be promiscuous. Although Katie Rose’s logic is incredibly flawed, I can see where she’s coming from, having not long ago been a teenage girl myself and been jealous of my classmates who were able to attract boys with their feminine wiles while I remained perpetually single. While it’s easy to judge Katie Rose, as an outsider to the story, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have taken her side if I’d been in her position. Is it any wonder we’re not sympathetic enough to women trapped in prostitution if we make these assumptions of women with “loose morals”?
Olivia Wakefield played a larger part in this story than I initially expected, and it was interesting to see how she lived in comparison to Maureen and Katie Rose. I’m sure many readers will relate to Olivia’s desire to help the less fortunate but genuinely not being able to understand their struggles enough to truly provide any assistance. Although some of Olivia’s friends might seem naive or snobbish in their assumptions and suggestions, I’m sure there are many middle-class women’s church groups today that aren’t too different from the one that Olivia attended. I’d never heard of Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps before reading Band of Sisters, but I appreciated the way that his book made its way into the lives of all the women in the novel and helped them to focus their actions as Jesus would have. Although the repetition of the phrase “What would Jesus do?” continually made me think of those wristbands that were popular in my youth group a few years ago, it really is something that everyone needs to consider more often. I hope this is a message that readers take away from Band of Sisters.
Band of Sisters certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I was sad when the book finally came to an end. It was the sort of story that I wanted to savour, even though I rushed through it in my desire to see Maureen and Olivia achieve their goals and receive their much-earned happy endings. While the story had a few small flaws, I hope that many readers are able to appreciate Band of Sisters and come out of the book as challenged as I was.
fter years of abuse and shame, Maureen O’Reilly lacks both trust and hope. When her mother dies, Maureen is left to care for and protect her younger sister Katie Rose. Unfortunately, being in the service of a powerful landowner, Maureen knows first-hand how little protection is available to both of them; for the landowner’s son already has his sights set on Katie Rose and there is little doubt that he will take whatever he wants. Maureen turns to her Aunt Verna, who is the only person she knows who might be able to protect Katie Rose. However Aunt Verna has her own plans—plans to not only rescue Katie Rose, but to give Maureen a fresh start as well. Aunt Verna knows of a wealthy colonel who 30 years earlier promised to help Maureen’s dad start over in America, but will the man still be alive and if so, does his offer extend to Maureen and her sister? As Maureen and Katie Rose hastily leave for America in the company of Joshua Keeton, she dares to hope for a new start free from the shame of her past.
Once in America, Maureen’s hopes are quickly dashed as she discovers how difficult it is to get through immigration and find respectable employment. Once she’s caught the eye of the unscrupulous Jamie Flynn her tasks becomes even harder. Will she be able to avoid abduction and protect Katie Rose? Set in 1910 among poverty, despair, wealth, and debauchery, Band of Sisters is a satisfying, intriguing novel.
While I enjoyed Band of Sisters, I think I would have liked it better except for two reasons. First I read Wedded to War a couple of months ago and while it is set during the Civil War period, there are several overlapping themes with this book. Both feature wealthy women not content with marriage and wanting to make a difference in society. Both books include a story about Irish immigrant women struggling to survive and acquire respectable positions without references or connections. The second issue that kept me from really connecting with this book is Maureen. I ended up liking her character, but for much of the book I didn’t understand her immense distrust of everyone. It was like her poor decisions were more to make the story flow than authentic choices. What shapes her character is in the past and the reader gets a very condensed version of her background, whichmakes it hard to really understand her actions and reactions. As a result, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with her character and believe that any rational person would make the decisions she was making.
I commend Cathy Gohlke for taking up the topic of human trafficking. It’s certainly a major issue in today’s society that doesn’t get enough attention. Gohlke handles the topic delicately and in a manner that should notoffend sensitive readers.
Band of Sisters feels very well researched, but I wanted more background and to feel more a part of the time period and the events that were happening. There is some mention ofhistorical events, but they feel a bit hurried or glazed over. I would have loved to know more about the fire at the Triangle Waist Factory and to better understand the conditions prior to and after the fire. Though Maureen works at a department store and I realize that it was a difficult work environment, I don’t truly understand in what ways it was a difficult position. I know an author can only include so many details, but I wanted more in order to bring this environment to life so that I truly felt a part of Maureen’s world and could better sympathize with her plight.
I very much enjoyed the middle part of this book and it held my attention quite well. However, toward the end, the pacing goes askew. Once the main plot is resolved, the story seems to lose focus. The scenes are rushed, but there seems to be too many of them and they’re somewhat chaotic. All the loose ends are tidied up and perhaps that’s the problem. Additionally there is quite a bit of prayers and spiritual thoughts as the story reaches its climax and conclusion. The spiritual themes presented are excellent I just wished they would have been spread more throughout the story.
Overall I enjoyed Band of Sisters. It’s not often that I venture into the world of women’s historical fiction, but this was a nice change. I liked the historical information that is presented and found the fictional storyline quite intriguing. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) the romance is light, so Rachel will not be reviewing a zombie novel for us.