Despite the odds being stacked against them, Annie and Euphemie eventually realize their dream of escaping to America, thanks to a fateful run-in with a group of Solemnites—a “family” who pride themselves on being “kind without joy” and offer them sanctuary, in hopes of their religious conversion in exchange. As the Lestables try to make a new life for themselves in America among the Solemnite community, young Auguste quotes his father’s philosophical rantings to the acolytes and his newest friend, Pansy, while his mother and Euphemie develop a clandestine love affair. Meanwhile, a rumored three-eared bear begins wreaking havoc on the locals while an upcoming religious festival sets the groundwork for what can only be described as an explosive debate.
Hill’s revelation of youthful curiosity winds throughout, illustrated by Auguste’s tender age, the young-at-heart Annie and Euphemie, and the characters’ hopeful trek to a new start. The narrative is both whimsical and entertaining, even as it crescendos to a shocking conclusion, while Hill offers unsentimental free-falls into the show-must-go-on mood of its characters: “they all partook of the thick air of a tragic winter’s evening” is the general response as the central cast turns away from the finale’s events to embark on yet another new voyage.
Takeaway: Polished characters and satirical musings complete this 19th-century American celebration.
Great for fans of: Christopher Buckley’s The Judge Hunter; Isabel Miller’s Patience & Sarah.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
A unique historical novel about the depth of relationships
Annie and Euphémie, both recently widowed, find themselves fleeing their home in France due to murderous circumstances, and they’re bringing Annie’s son Auguste with them. After they are helped by a few missionaries from the United States, the French trio sets their sights on Indiana with the Solemnites. From there, they embark on a devastating journey across the Atlantic to live in a seemingly blissful village with a Christian sect (or cult, as some may say) that commemorates solemnity.
Everything seems to be going well for a while, even if the missionaries do prefer to ignore the romantic stirrings between the widows. It is idyllic and beautiful and pleasure-avoidant, right up until things take a turn for the worse: Solemn is chosen to host the 1885 All-Tent Revival. It does not take much to imagine the sort of chaos that the trio are about to get into, especially since Auguste might be a little too clever for his own good.
I love Hill’s commentary on fellowship within this story. We are given a variety of instances in which philosophies and the modalities of conversation slam together in a way that is both thoughtful and humorous. Particularly exemplary of this are the conversations between Auguste and Pansy, one of the daughters of the Solemnite missionaries. These two can be found butting heads over just about anything. Pansy has grown up within this strict and—for lack of a better word—solemn religious group, and her worldview is very much colored in that way. Auguste, on the other hand, takes his father’s word and raises it on the highest pedestal, causing a number of clashes between the two.
When Pany and Auguste run into a pair of siblings from Second Solemn, their views diverge further. Pansy wishes to engage in their understanding of religion and the differences between the two Solemns, whereas Auguste is fascinated by the possibility of a bear attack in the village. It can be easy to forget the ages of the children, as they speak with the same cadence as their adults, but Auguste’s curiosity brings you back to the reality: these are children in close quarters who just want to gain understanding.
From murder to bear hunts to the deconstruction of the guiding principles of an entire religious sect, Sister Liberty is a fully-fledged revolution. With such a deep focus on the inner workings of the relationships between women and women, and women and society, the book is bound to stir up curiosity.