I discovered my new favorite author last month and her newest book didn't disappoint. The reader is swept away from the first page. Cathy weaves a gripping story with very real characters. You'll smile and you'll definitely cry as you read their touching story.
The theme of Band of Sisters is living out what Jesus would have us do in every aspect of our lives. The author refers often to a classic 1890's book called In His Steps which is now next on my to-read list. Cathy spins a thought-provoking story, and woven through it all is Jesus, the author of our lives who weaves everything perfectly together to create a masterpiece.
When their mother dies, Maureen and her sister Katie Rose escape a dangerous future in Ireland and come to New York, where an old family friend awaits. But the friend has died and the girls are turned away by the friend's family. Maureen finds work at a department store that hides a secret, and she must figure out what to do.
I found this book very good and an interesting read. Like the author's previous book (Promise Me This), it is full of detail and adventure.
Maureen 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?
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. 4.5*