November Read of the Month: “The Winter Sisters,” by Tim Westover

Tim Westover

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Tim Westover’s newest book, The Winter Sisters (QW Publishers, 2019), is a mesmerizing gem of a novel. It’s a hard book to classify, though. The time frame makes it a historical novel, while the relationship between two of its main characters develops into an unusual love story. Yet the magical realism gloss adds a parable or allegory quality. Perhaps it is best to call the book a literary historical novel of love and suspense, all the while marking it as a fine Southern novel.

Set in Lawrenceville, Georgia, the narrative opens with a prologue introducing the Winter sisters in the year 1811. Effie, the youngest; Rebecca, the eldest; and Sarah, the middle girl. They are engaged in a fortune-telling ceremony involving candle wax, which foreshadows love interests. The sisters are orphans and have pledged to stay together. Their mother, a healer and herbalist, both taught them and left them books to aid them before she disappeared.

Some years later, young Dr. Aubrey Waycross is lured to Lawrenceville in 1822 by the mayor’s letter and tales of rampant hydrophobia being spread by a rabid panther. As Aubrey is still haunted by his sister’s death from rabies, he travels to the small town with the notion of helping the fight against rabies. However, he quickly discovers he is in a primitive small town with “wild forest pressing on it from all sides.” Effigies of the Winter sisters twist in the wind, a great herd of hogs root around the muddy town square, and a church slumps in the northeast corner. Aubrey wryly notes he had hoped for “a life in a place more civilized than this.” He “came here to doctor, but it appears that all the doctoring is seen to by charlatans, banjo players, and granny women. All the locals are afraid of some polecat that they fancy to be a panther.”

Despite his less than enthusiastic first impression, the doctor is stuck. He is out of money, and travel to and from the town is hard—and expensive. The mayor eventually admits deception in the recruitment, though he blames Preacher Boatwright for encouraging it. Meanwhile, crazed by his religiosity, the preacher rants about the Winter sisters, all of whom he considers witches. Aubrey dismisses the tales of the rabid panther because panthers don’t roam north Georgia. Yet the preacher insists the panther lurks menacingly about and is the witches’ evil familiar.

In quick order, Aubrey finds lodging in a barn overlooking some personable pigs and alienates the town folks by speaking against a traveling medicine man he considers a huckster. Learning that the “witches,” Rebecca, Sarah and Effie Winters, have only recently been driven from town after a fire, Aubrey hikes through the woods to their haven in the forest to confront—and condemn—them. His long, arduous walk through the thick forests of the rough north Georgia terrain offers some of the wry humor found sprinkled through the novel.

Thus begins the tale that spins several mystical encounters with the panther, unexplained healings, a gentle and slowly evolving love story, some grim medical missteps on the doctor’s part, the increasing menace of the preacher’s rage against the sisters, and the suspenseful battle to save Ouida Bell, the town’s loveliest and sweetest young woman, from rabies. The doctor complicates things greatly by being an ether addict and by not always recognizing either love or genuine healing when faced with them.

The rabid panther moves through the story with a spectral quality, and the author describes the poor beast with both horror and tenderness. In Aubrey’s first encounter with the beast, “Its jaws hung open, and great strands of white foam trailed from between its fangs. Its eyes bulged from their places, dark swellings half clouded with its disease.” Yet later, Aubrey and the panther meet again and Aubrey reacts with sympathy:

The animal looked at me, suffering it its eyes, intelligence, sadness. In compassion for my fellow mortal, I stretched out my hand to scuff it behind its ears. …The panther laid its head against my arms as though asleep.

The story is haunted by the panther and the quest for healing for Ouida Bell when she is bitten by the beast, just as the increasing threat from the obsessed preacher raises suspense.

Aubrey’s turn from a haughty, judgmental doctor with only bleedings, blistering, and amputations to offer to a genuine, compassionate healer is a strong, compelling plot element. While he initially discards the healing arts of the Winter sisters, he soon witnesses their effectiveness and strives to learn from them. The book treats the Winter sisters with great respect, and part of Aubrey’s character arc is his learning that the so-called witches have genuine knowledge and talent, and they do care about their patients.

Tim Westover’s writing is rich with a unique vocabulary which enhances the story at every turn. He uses antiquated medical terms naturally in the ebb and flow of the narrative and in dialogue so that the novel reads as if it might have been written in 1822. The use of such terms as quinsy, an inflammation of the throat and a term more popular in the 1800s than now, and clyster, an archaic term for enema, adds to the richness of the experience of reading The Winters Sisters.

As compelling and intriguing as the plot is, Westover’s talent for description is an equally powerful component of the book. With simple declarative sentences, Westover evokes the singular beauty of a walk in the woods:

Silence passed between us, but the woods were not quiet. Squirrels rustled among fallen leaves. Acorns fell like heavy raindrops. New bird songs passed from branch to branch.

Using a poet’s tools, he writes: “The last of the fireflies wished each other farewell in their arcane language of light.”

While the author’s talent for conveying beauty is striking, his talent for conveying tension, conflict, and fear is equally impressive and used with great skill to move the plot along. For example, Westover foreshadows the rising threat to the sisters with a simple scene in which a town person, emboldened by the preacher’s rant about so-called witches, throws a tomato at one of the sisters. Sarah observes, “The world is a poison to goodness. Next time, it won’t be tomatoes. It’ll be rocks and, the next time, knives.”

Much of the story’s magical realism and its mystery centers on Effie, the youngest sister. She describes herself as a “remnant, left from a time before understanding.” That Effie has magical healing powers beyond herbs is evident—Aubrey sees this, as do others. But, as Effie notes, “The sick and suffering could draw on my cleanliness as though drinking from a well, and the well was deep, but it did not go on forever.” And however much Aubrey strives to understand Effie and her powers, he “couldn’t understand, nor should he. If it was real, then his world was incomplete.”

The magic of Effie, Sarah, and Rebecca—the Winter sisters—and Dr. Aubrey Waycross is captured within the magic of Tim Westover’s book. This is a fine example of Southern literature at its most moving and vivid and beautiful.

Westover, who currently lives in North Georgia, is a graduate of Davidson College and the University of Georgia. In addition to writing, Westover enjoys programming, playing the clawhammer banjo, and raising his three-year-old daughter to be a modern American eccentric. Westover is donating the profits from his books to the child life department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. His prior books are Old Weird South, editor (QW Publisher, 2012), an anthology of short stories by various authors; and Auraria (QW Publisher, 2012), a magical realism historical novel also set in North Georgia.

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