For my birthday this year, my lovely sister got me three books. The first one I decided to read was The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan. It’s set in Spain, and my sister knows I love anything related to Spain. That plus the word “sister” in the title made it an ideal gift.
The Sisterhood is divided into two settings: a convent in the 1500s during the Spanish Inquisition, and in 2000 as a teenager uncovers her own past. Menina Walker was orphaned as a toddler in South America, and after a brief time in an orphanage in the Andes, she’s adopted by two Americans and relocated to Georgia. Her only possessions are a gold medal and an old book.
Fast forward to 2000, and 19-year-old Menina has grown up, gotten engaged, and nearly finished college. To complete her art degree, she must work on a thesis project, and her plan is to travel to Spain to learn about Tristan Mendoza, an artist who seems to have a connection to her gold medal; both feature an image of a swallow. But her controlling fiancé won’t let her go, and when the couple have a bad fight, Menina breaks things off with him and rushes off to Spain to do her project. She ends up at a convent, the very one which features in the 1500s portions of The Sisterhood.
Early in the 1500s, we meet Isabella, who changes her name to Sor Beatriz upon entering the Andalusian convent, Las Golondrinas (“the swallows”). She gives birth to a daughter, Salome, who is later sent to help with a new convent in Sevilla. She never returns, though, and is presumed dead.
As the Spanish Inquisition wreaks havoc on Spain, Sor Beatriz’s convent takes in five orphaned girls: Esperanza, Marisol, Pia, Sanchia, and Luz. Eventually, the former four girls must escape to the New World before the Inquisition discovers them and their true identities. Their goal is to find a new convent in the New World, apparently also going by the name Las Golondrinas. Could it be Salome lived and ended up there?
The Sisterhood is an interesting book, and though it has a slow start, it gradually grows into a captivating, illuminating story. It has its flaws, though luckily they pale in comparison to the pros. Perhaps the weakest part of the book is Menina. Her character has a bit of dissonance: She’s described as an intelligent, kind, good girl. However, upon her arrival in Spain, she often behaves poorly and blunders through a few mistakes. She is often rather annoying, and has occasionally unrealistic reactions to things. Another distraction is how she and her best friend Becky talk. They’re supposed to be 19-year-old women in the year 2000, yet their language sounds a bit dated.
Going into a puzzling con, the author describes what seems to be Peru in detail throughout the book, and yet she never identifies the country by name. At one point in chapter 4, Menina is directly asked what country she was born in. Instead of saying “Peru,” the author simply writes, “She told him and he looked surprised.” The South American setting is clearly described as being on the Pacific coast, in the “shadow of the Andes,” amongst Incas who speak Quechua and drink chicha. It’s odd to be so specific, and yet not to reveal that it’s Peru even once. Throughout the book, Spain and America are identified; they even get down to the province/state and the actual city. Why the mystery surrounding Peru?
Nevertheless, those cons – minor as they can seem – are far outweighed by the pros. And there are many to dive into.
First, all of the chapters set in the 1500s are engrossing and illuminating. We get to meet a diverse cast of characters, each with different backgrounds and experiences that we get a glimpse into. We learn what it’s like to secretly be a Muslim or Jew during the Inquisition, and how dangerous that is. It’s even dangerous for the nuns at Las Golondrinas, for though they’re Catholic, they’re a bit more progressive than they ought to be. That they secretly house heretics puts them at great risk.
The Sisterhood describes the Spanish Inquisition – I subject I knew little about, aside from one other novel I’ve read about it – and it’s saddening how intolerant and horrific it was. But even so, it’s wonderful to read about women who are so progressive and welcoming. Indeed, they believe that people of all faiths should be loved and respected; we should all be allowed to live side by side in peace. The characters and the book overall push for religious tolerance – a message that was as important in the 1500s as it is today.
On top of progressive thinking in regards to religion, The Sisterhood is also a refreshingly feminist book. It focuses on relationships between women – between mothers and daughters, between sisters, between friends. Indeed, men assume primarily secondary roles here. Instead, we get to see relationships between women, and we see nuns who reject religious men’s ideas that women are further from God than they are. By the end of the book, we see just how far this feminism goes in terms of women in religion.
In addition to getting to know the Andalucía region of Spain, we also get to learn more about Peru, especially during those early colonial times. We get to see how the Spanish and the Incas interacted – sometimes with horrible consequences, but often with peace and love. (I myself have lived in both Spain and Peru – my husband is Peruvian – and so found both settings magnificent.)
Although Helen Bryan’s The Sisterhood starts off slowly, it grow more and more captivating, and it all ties together beautifully in the final chapter. My rating kept increasing as I went, and it’s now a novel I will recommend to my closest family and friends. It’s a gorgeous time-hopping book that highlights so many important themes and cultures, and it’s a novel that will stay with me.