Discussion Guide: Winter Sisters
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1. Agency, the ability to act on one’s own accord and determine one’s own life, was not something most nineteenth-century women or girls possessed. Not medically, not legally, not professionally, not in their public lives, and many not in their private lives. What degree of agency are the various women characters in Winter Sisters able to seize for themselves? To what dangers—emotional, physical, social—are they then subjected as a result? How does this theme of agency play out in Elizabeth’s subplot? In Viola’s?

2. Mary drugs Emma and Claire in order to examine them. Is this another violation of Emma and Claire’s agency or is it an act of compassion that protects them from further violation? Did Mary have a choice? What would have happened, do you think, if she hadn’t drugged them?

3. Child trafficking around the globe remains a contemporary and enormous problem. That problem is portrayed in Winter Sisters in an historical context. Does the historical lens magnify, minimize, distort, or clarify this monumental global crisis?

4. The reprehensible actions of the antagonist are portrayed in a way that leaves no doubt as to what occurred. Are the details of the crime sensationalized in any way? Did the author focus on the crime’s emotional repercussions enough? How did the novel’s realism affect you?

5. How do you feel about Harley’s escape from judgment? Do men today walk away from similar crimes unscathed?

6. The trial questions in Winter Sisters were pulled from nineteenth-century rape trial transcripts, which record the prosecutorial and defense techniques of inflicting shame, intimidation, blame, and the questioning of reputation and veracity. Does the trial in Winter Sisters seem contemporary or not? How much or little has changed around the prosecution of the crime or the way its victims are treated?

7. What psychological circumstances are at play in the story that might allow for Emma to overcome her trauma? What characters’ actions help, and which hurt her recovery? In what ways does Emma save herself?

8. Describe how the “good” men in the novel underpin, and do not overwhelm, the actions of the women in their lives. In what ways are the gender roles flipped in Winter Sisters? How pivotal is Mary’s role? Jakob’s?

9. Why do you think William, and not Amelia, took Emma to climb the cliff in Cape Cod? Was that the right decision?