Books & Reviews

‘Rebel Sisters,’ by Marita Conlon McKenna: Book Review

Star rating: ★★★★✰

rebel-sisters-marita-conlon-mckennaStarting in 1901, Rebel Sisters tells the story of three Gifford Sisters, Muriel, Grace and Nellie. Born into a privileged Anglo-Irish family, we follow them as they fight back against their mother’s expectations and become involved in the growing independence movement in Ireland.

Each sister gets involved in the rebellion in their own way. Muriel and Grace fall for activists Thomas McDonagh and Joseph Plunkett, while Nellie joins the Citizen Army, working with Countess Markievicz.

When the rising starts on Easter Monday 1916, the girls’ worlds are torn apart in ways they never imagined, and their lives are changed forever.

I was a huge Marita Conlon-McKenna fan when I was younger, I think most Irish children were. I don’t know of many who didn’t love Under the Hawthorn Tree and her Children of the Famine series. But I hadn’t read any of her adult novels until Rebel Sisters, and I was glad to see that her ability to write impactful historical fiction doesn’t stop at children’s fiction.

Rebel Sisters is a great retelling of the 1916 Rising, and I loved that it was from the point of view of women. Over the last few years, a lot more female viewpoints of the Rising have been coming out, and it’s amazing to see the influence women had.

This is a great book for piquing anyone’s interest, not only in the Rising, but in the role of women and the Gifford sisters themselves. I didn’t know anything about them before reading this, but it gave a wonderful insight into their lives and how they were involved in the Easter Rising.

One of the best things about Rebel Sisters is the different viewpoints it gives of the Rising, both from a personal perspective and a physical one. Most of the stories from the Rising come from the GPO, the main headquarters, but because Nellie was in Stephen’s Green and the Royal College of Surgeons we got to see parts of the fighting we haven’t seen before.

With the girls’ mother, we get to see the point of view of the Irish who didn’t agree with the rebellion. A lot of Irish at the time would have been of this mindset, not seeing the need for rebellion, until after the executions of the rebels when they became martyr-like symbols. But again, not a lot of retellings of this time focus on those who disagreed with it, so it was nice to see that perspective as well. It made the book even more authentic than it already was.

There are a lot of personal touches throughout the book that make it an interesting read, like the fact that Joseph Plunkett was a big fan of roller skating. And reading about Grace and Muriel trying to get to Kilmainham to see to see Joseph and Thomas is heartbreaking. I cried a lot, I have to say.

Rebel Sisters is a great book for anyone who’s a fan of historical fiction, of Irish history, and of the Rising itself.

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