Following the Reconquista, Spain's recapture from the Moors by Spanish royals queen Isabella and king Ferdinand in the fifteen century, the Holy Inquisition unleashed a fierce offensive against the enemies of the Christian faith and targeted Muslims, Jews, conversos--those who converted to Christianity for sake of appearances meanwhile practicing their religion in secrecy-- and those who harbored and protected them.
It's under those circumstances that the nuns at the Convent of Las Golondrinas, Spain's oldest convent, receive news of an impending inquiry by the Inquisition. Four girls that have sought refuge at the convent--and may be found guilty if questioned and therefore sentenced to die at the stake-- are spirited away in the middle of the night with the New World as their destination. They carry with them a book containing the Chronicles of the Order, its Gospel and a religious medal rumored to have belonged to the Order's foundress. Those items are to be delivered to the Mother Superior at the Convent of Las Golondrinas of Los Andes, a sister convent in the New World.
In present day in an unidentified South American country, which I assumed is Peru, there is a major hurricane with a high toll of casualties. With little hope left of finding survivors, a four year-old girl is found in the sea with an old chain wrapped around her neck and a medal hanging from it. Everyone calls it a miracle.
The rescued orphan is adopted by an American couple and is given as a gift the book containing the Chronicles and the Gospel as well as the medal to be kept from her until her sixteenth birthday. The girl is named Menina Ann Walker and is raised as a Baptist.
As an adult, running from a broken engagement, Menina enlists in a three week art course in Spain, but unexpected circumstances force her to take a detour through a Spanish road dating back to the Roman Empire. Fate seems to be guiding Menina for she ends up at the Convent of Las Golondrinas, where she makes the discovery of a lifetime.
I liked The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan. It is a relatively short book (405 pages) if you consider its genre is historical fiction. In the first 200 pages or so nothing much happens, mere descriptions of daily life at the convent throughout the years, as well as the story of the five hidden girls that provide a historical setting to understand the times. Then, the Inquisition party arrives in the middle of the night and suddenly much starts happening, first the voyage to the New World, then once they arrive the interaction with the sister convent’s nuns and patronesses.
In the New World the dynamics of the book changes because it’s more about how the pioneer nuns from Spain interacted with the natives and how the natives began to accept the Christian faith based on how the world around them was changing. I thought that was a rather unique subplot that I hadn’t encountered before in historical fiction narratives.
The Sisterhood has a round quality, particularly about filial links through the centuries that is very a-la classical myths. In here the themes of fate and destiny are very prominent; names and even physical features are recurrent through the generations.
The Sisterhood wouldn’t have been a very good book without the revelations about the foundress almost at the end. It was very much like Da Vinci Code without the killing. The ending brought the story to a nice conclusion and tied all loose ends.
There are two faults that I couldn’t help but attaching to the book: one, it doesn’t have that good an editing, the verbal tenses change continuously during the same paragraph and it gets confusing; second, I couldn’t understand how the ships crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the coast of Peru without circumnavigating America as was the custom back then.
In summary, The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan is good historical fiction that deserves to be given a chance and its faults overlooked for the story shines through.