In his novel The Winter Sisters Tim Westover takes an earthy, magical-realist dive into small-town Southern life two centuries ago. Inspired by the real 19th-century pioneers of modern scientific medicine, Westover conjures an optimistic young doctor caught in the crosswinds of superstition and science.
In 1822 Aubrey Waycross, a newly minted physician from Savannah, reluctantly accepts an invitation to bring his medical skills (along with his incipient ether addiction) to muddy Lawrenceville. This small Georgia town has ambitions to become the county seat, but retains one foot firmly in backwoods ways.
Fantasy and realistic historical fiction intersect as Aubrey encounters a superstitious populace. Their fear of a rabid panther – a species that shouldn’t even be in the region – is as solid as its belief in folk remedies, some valid and others not so much.
These remedies come courtesy of the Winter sisters, three young healers accused by some, like the frothing Parson Boatwright, of being witches. On a track strangely parallel to the parson’s, Aubrey hopes to disillusion the townspeople and replace superstition, embodied (as he supposes) by the sisters, with scientific medical practices. But the Winter women aren’t what he expected.
Westover smartly mingles details of the era’s accepted medical treatments – bloodletting and the like – with the real, if at the time mysterious, efficacy of some of eldest sister Rebecca’s treatments, like willow bark for pain. The story becomes yet more profound as we discover that, as different as Aubrey is (or thinks he is) from the sisters, the sisters are just as different from one another.
Of course, all the atmosphere and period detail in the world won’t avail without a good tale to tell. Fortunately the novel provides a crackling good story – funny, touching, full of vivid characters and eerie mysteries. Past traumas and the main characters’ natures are gradually revealed while colorful supporting characters dance in and out of the narrative to entertain us and further enrich the period ambience.
All the while, we’re asked to ponder matters of science and superstition. Ironically, while many of Aubrey’s up-to-date practices are today known to be useless or worse, the sisters practice genuine herbal medicine and make brilliant use of the placebo effect. Slowly Aubrey’s eyes open to possibilities beyond his education, especially as his friendship with Rebecca deepens and he grows more attached to the humble folk of Lawrenceville. Tearing down effigies of the sisters hung in a tree by the more pious townsfolk, he
threw the unbound pieces into the current. The water took them away. I wondered if there was forgiveness there, in the places where our unbound pieces go. That, though, was a long time hence, a country from which there was no return, and I meant to find absolution here.
But will his preoccupation with youngest sister Effie, with her Bartleby-like taciturnity and apparently eldritch powers, get in the way of a happy future? How will the townspeople’s ambiguous attitude toward the sisters – respected healers? ungodly witches? – play out in the end? Not to mention that rabid panther. Will it spread its incurable infection to the good people of Lawrenceville?
Aside from the all-too-common fiction-crime of characters calling each other by their names far too often, Westover’s easygoing, crafty writing is often quite literary, with deftly distinct characterizations. Middle sister Sarah sums up her contempt for her fellow beings thus: “‘Every human being is a skin sack stuffed up to the neck with greed and flesh and stupidity…And what spills out of their face holes are delusions and mistakes.’ When Rebecca asks why, then, does she help them, Sarah fires back: “‘I don’t!…I make them do foolish dances…but they get better anyway. And then more of them come.'”
Weirdly for a story about the antebellum South, the book seems unaware of the presence of slavery and – except for a few mentions in the context of folk remedies – Native Americans. But it’s a fantasy, after all. Within the magic circle it draws around fictional Lawrenceville, The Winter Sisters casts a charming spell.