Upon finishing Rebel Sisters by Marita Conlon-McKenna, I was filled with regret that I didn’t pay better attention in the British Literature class I took my sophomore year of college. The class surveyed Romantic, Victorian, and Modern literature. I happily devoured Romantic literature, which was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, and it celebrated nature, spirituality, individuality, creativity, and purity. It’s something that resonated with me, and now that I think about it, that’s probably why I’m so keen on the Steampunk subculture; it seems to celebrate many of the same things. Victorian literature and Modern literature? Puh! That stuff could hardly hold my attention. And…now I find that unfortunate because we definitely studied the Irish identity in Modern literature, and that is a major theme in Rebel Sisters. While I enjoyed this novel, I feel I could have experience a different plane of appreciation had I just applied myself a little harder in that class.
Released: January 2016
Publisher: Transworld Ireland
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Growing up in the privileged confines of Dublin’s leafy Rathmines, the bright, beautiful Gifford sisters Grace, Muriel and Nellie kick against the conventions of their wealthy Anglo-Irish background and their mother Isabella’s expectations. Soon, as World War I erupts across Europe, the spirited sisters find themselves caught up in their country’s struggle for freedom.
Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett – both leaders of ‘The Rising’ – while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and bravely takes up arms, fighting alongside Countess Constance Markievicz in the rebellion.
On Easter Monday, 1916, the biggest uprising in Ireland for two centuries begins. The world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear will be torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy.
It helps to do a little research before reading this book
I would always encourage readers to do some research before or while reading a historical fiction novel to help put things into context. Even if I’m already familiar with a historical topic (for example: WWII), I always have my phone nearby so I can do a quick scroll through a wikipedia page to learn more about a person or an event or an idea. I even found myself briefly referring to Wikipedia while reading the Mistresses of Versailles novels just so I could understand the subtle cultural references even though they usually didn’t play a major role in the story. Rebel Sisters, on the other hand, required a little light reading before digging in to its pages…and then some more reading once I hit page 200.
This is the second novel I’ve read this year that has made me realize how very little I learned (or was taught) in my high school history courses. I’ve determined that if an event or nation or idea didn’t affect America is some way, it wasn’t mentioned in the pages of my AP World History textbook (and I’m convinced that the reason so many pages were dedicated to China had less to do with its rich history and more to do with that fact that China was emerging as a superpower). I’m wracking my brain to remember if Ireland ever made it in to the textbooks pages…maybe there was one paragraph on the Great Potato Famine being related to an increase in Irish immigrants in America?
For the record, I think Marita Conlon-McKenna actually does an exceptional job at writing about the political atmosphere of Ireland during the early 1900s in a fashion that is not daunting and is easy to understand for newcomers of the topic. However, I found myself quite interested in the events that lead up to the rebellion so I could better understand the characters’ motivation. So…my recent search history looks like this:
- Irish identity in literature
- Irish cultural nationalism
- Irish Home Rule Movement
- Partition of Ireland
- Bloody Sunday (Ireland has like… four of them)
- The Cranberries (mostly because I just like their music, but they did reference the Easter Rising in Zombie)
- Rockall (nothing to do with the story, but I was intrigued by the name. Turns out, it’s an “islet” [tiny island], but literally it’s a gigantic rock, and apparently there have been disputes between Ireland and the UK over whose rock islet it is)
The Gifford Sisters are kind of amazing
First off, all six of the Gifford sisters accomplished pretty incredible things in their lifetime; they were journalists, broadcasters, artists, nurses, nationalist and suffrage activists. Basically, this book exudes girl power. (Oh yea, PS, I forgot to mention that the Gifford sisters are real!!!) However, Rebel Sisters mostly revolves around Muriel, Grace, and Nellie, who were the most involved in the rebellion. Conlon-McKenna weaves this wonderful story about these three young women growing up, falling in love, starting families…yet also engaging in a revival of a culture, challenging social norms for women, publishing politically-charged drawings and journal articles, and participating in a rebellion. All in a days work.
The challenges of writing about real people are this…
I can’t help but bring up the Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I think because the Mailly-Nesle sisters are not as well-known as say… Madame de Pompadour and Comtesse de Barry, Christie was allowed more creative license in breathing life into the characters of the five sisters. However, when your characters are Irish nationalist icons from the past 100 years…I suspect you’re only allowed so much. Between that and the subject matter, Rebel Sisters was a much…drier read. Actually, I don’t know if “dry” is even the appropriate adjective because that suggests the book was boring, and it definitely wasn’t that. But I didn’t feel as engaged as I had hoped either. As much as I admired the Gifford sisters, I didn’t form an attachment with them.
The story also spanned 16 years in 400 pages, so I felt like I was only given brief glimpses into certain parts of the sisters’ lives. And, the parts that I wanted more of seemed to pass by too quickly– for example, the actual Easter Rising and resolution took place in the last 60 pages of the book.
Overall, I quite enjoyed this book, but I also wanted more. To try to tell three different stories that take place over 16 years in only 400 pages…it’s almost too ambitious. I can’t decide if I wanted the story to be more focused on one of the sisters or if I just wanted more pages/books so I could get to know the three sisters better.