— The Winter Sisters, by Tim Westover (QW Publishers, 2019)
Magical realism is often associated with the Latin American literary tradition where it originated from and its entwinement of the mundane and the whimsical, the folkloric and the historical. The genre, however, can flourish anywhere and perhaps especially more so in regions like Appalachia, where the land seems ripe with myths and tall tales.
In Tim Westover’s novel The Winter Sisters, the hills of antebellum northern Georgia are the setting for a clash between science and magic in a story that treads nimbly between fantasy, picaresque, and historical fiction. In 1822, Savannah doctor Aubrey Waycross is invited to Lawrenceville, a remote town that, thanks to Westover’s evocative prose, seems to exist in a perpetual time warp where America is still new and tradition coexists with progress—a community that is as distant from cities as it is from the ripples of the Revolutionary War and the brewing tensions of the Civil War.
Waycross has been lured by the town mayor and pastor Boatwright under the pretense that Lawrenceville is experiencing an outbreak of rabies, with wild dogs and a panther roaming its surrounding woods.
The real outbreak, however, is the townspeople’s faith in three sisters—Rebecca, Sarah, and Effie Winter—and their apparently miraculous curative powers. Secluded in the nearby Hope Hollow, the sisters dispense herbal remedies and magical cures-for-all sorts of ailments, from broken bones to rheumatism. Pastor Boatwright sees the sisters as a threat and attempts to recruit Waycross in a crusade to purge Lawrenceville from superstition. While Waycross is taken aback when he finds out he has been misled and uprooted from the big city, he readily assumes the task of fighting what he deems are charlatans. The doctor has his own blind faith in what, at the time, were the treatments prescribed by science. These include procedures such as bleeding patients to “balance the humors” per the ancient teachings of Galen and Hippocrates, which Waycross thinks are the ultimate remedy to superstition and folktales.
Age of Miracles
Although the sisters had already been chased out of Lawrenceville by Boatwright, the doctor invites them to share his “office”—a barn previously occupied by hogs—in town so as to observe up close their methods, which he has come to conclude, “are not without merit.” Soon they are tending to large crowds of people seeking their help amid what is described in the novel’s vivid language as “coughs, sneezes, wheezes, rales—a cacophony of illness.” As they become familiar, Wayloft falls in love with the older Winter sister, Rebecca, and is fascinated by the apparent magical ability to heal exhibited by the youngest sibling, Effie.
While the story meanders at certain points, a strong cast of characters—many of them larger than life but never caricaturesque—and the captivating rural wonderland conjured by Westover sustain interest in the doctor and the sisters’ coming to terms, as well as Boatwright’s growing belligerence. Along with the magical occurrences, the attention to revealing detail—from the circumlocutious speech of healing tonic salesman and huckster Salmo Thumb to the catalogue of Rebecca’s herbs and the inventory of Wayloft’s medical tools—helps create a beautifully rendered story.
In The Winter Sisters, Westover treads a literary tradition that owes as much to folklore as to the witty travel writing of Mark Twain, while joining other writers who straddled between lore and fantasy fiction like Manly Wade Wellman and his stories of Silver John, a wandering balladeer who encountered mythical creatures and supernatural happenings in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Antecedents and possible influences aside, Westover’s novel is an original and richly woven tale of an age of miracles that passed in the real world but lives on in its pages.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza