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Excerpt from Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Winter Sisters

by Robin Oliveira

Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira X
Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2019, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan
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Print Excerpt

Chapter One

Two days before Emma and Claire O'Donnell disappeared, a light snow fell from the dawn sky above Albany, New York, almost as a warning mist. Later, people would recall that the flakes were mistakenly perceived as a lark, a last dusting in what had been an unusually cold winter. The year 1879 was already proving to be a surprising one: on March 3, the first woman lawyer had argued a case before the Supreme Court, and despite the wretched cold, there had been an abnormally scant snowfall. Just a foot since November, which had then melted away on three strangely warm days in early February, though the thick ice on the Hudson River had not yet broken.

Emma and Claire O'Donnell were ten and seven years old, respectively. In concession to the snow, they wore boots, but because the day was already warming they donned only a light coat over their spring dresses. Their parents were similarly attired: boots in lieu of lighter, leather shoes, a woolen coat for Bonnie, a thin cloth work jacket for David. The O'Donnells lived in three rooms on the first floor of a row house on Elm Street. Every morning they left the house together, Emma and Claire for the Van Zandt Grammar School, Bonnie to her millinery shop on State Street, and David to the Lumber District.

Their farewell on the morning of March tenth at the school doors was unremarkable as farewells go: a brief wave, an affectionate reminder for Emma to take care of Claire, and noisy reluctance from the sisters, for it was annoying to have to go inside on such a splendid day. There was little reason, any of them believed, to mark the occasion: they would see one another at home for their midday meal, as they always did.

David and Bonnie walked on together through the light, powdery snow the five blocks to State Street, Albany's wide boulevard, which was graced at its summit by the new capitol building, still unfinished after twelve years of construction. It was modeled after the Louvre Palace in Paris, but its outer walls had only just been completed, giving it a faintly apologetic mien, as its facade was still missing a promised grand stairway and a plethora of decorative friezes and gargoyles. Its interior third and fourth floors were still barren hollows of scaffolding and echo. The exasperated legislature, tired of waiting, had preemptively moved into the first two, anticipating years of noise and headache ahead.

The businesses of importance-with the exception of lumber and railroading-proceeded apace below the capitol, on State Street. A languorous hill, it eased from the capitol heights down to the Hudson River, spanned here by two railroad bridges, one north and one south. The waterway had first been named the North River by the Dutch, because it allowed passage northward from the Manhattan harbor, but it had long since been renamed after its discoverer, though the early moniker persisted in Manhattan City, whose centric gaze rarely extended to the wider world.

Albany's principal economic engine was that it offered a decent port on the only navigable river a steamboat day's voyage from the bustling trade center. A stubborn Flemish perseverance had long characterized the city's public personality, which had sustained the founding Dutch through the threat of native unrest, the encroaching French, and finally the conquering English, who captured New Netherlands-essentially all of northeast America-in 1664 and renamed the inauspiciously named yet tenacious city of Beverwijck, Albany. That same perseverance had also sustained the city through year after year of seasonal floods, for though the river was an economic boon, it was also Albany's watery Achilles' heel.

But today, Monday, March 10, it was snowing, and the river was still frozen, and merchants, bankers, printers, engravers, tobacconists, reporters, druggists, lawyers, and one milliner were all converging on State Street to empty mousetraps, sweep refuse from thresholds, and deposit money into their empty tills. The mercantile neighbors waxed convivial with one another about the snow shower. Smiles, all around, and a shaking of heads. Albany.

Excerpted from Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveira. Copyright © 2018 by Robin Oliveira. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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