Book Talk: SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, by Margaret Dilloway (via Shelf Awareness)

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (April 7, 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 0399170804 / 9780399170805)
Fiction: 400 pages, $26.95

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (April 21, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

book discussion SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW Margaret Dilloway The 3 Rs Blog

The story of Tomoe Gozen, a twelfth-century Japanese onna-musha (the female equivalent of a samurai), is woven between the modern-day domestic conflicts of two semi-estranged sisters in Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway (How to Be an American Housewife)

Rachel and Drew Snow knew how their parents met—their father selected their mother from a Japanese catalog of mail-order brides—but their mother’s life before coming to America was a mystery to them, and now that Hikari has been diagnosed with dementia and moved into a nursing home, they doubt they’ll ever learn more of her story. In a rare clear moment, Hikari asks Rachel to find a book she has stored in a closet at home. 

Because Rachel hasn’t been back to her parents’ house for two decades—not since her father kicked her out at the age of sixteen—she asks her sister to help her look for it. When they find the book in an old cardboard box, neither woman is able to read it, because it’s written in Japanese, but because their mother wrote their names in it, they know it’s meant for them. Drew hires a graduate student to translate the book, and the sisters are soon engrossed in the stories of Tomoe Gozen and Yamabuki, “sisters of heart” bound to the same man, and trying to decipher their significance to their mother. As Drew tries to pull together her unraveling life and Rachel confronts the challenges of her growing children, both women struggle to grasp the message that Hikari means for her daughters to take from this centuries-old story.

There is some question as to whether Tomoe Gozen is a historical or legendary figure. The narrative Dilloway crafts for her doesn’t always clearly parallel or reflect the present-day story of Rachel and Drew, but it’s an interesting framing device, and it adds an unexpected dimension to the complicated lives of the Snow sisters. 

Dilloway expands the story of Tomoe Gozen and Yamabuki in a full-length historical novel, The Tale of the Warrior Geisha, scheduled to be published in Fall 2015.


Rachel and Drew Snow may be sisters, but their lives have followed completely different paths.

Married to a wonderful man and a mother to two strong-minded teens, Rachel hasn’t returned to her childhood home since being kicked out by her strict father after an act of careless teenage rebellion. Drew, her younger sister, followed her passion for music but takes side jobs to make ends meet and longs for the stability that has always eluded her. Both sisters recall how close they were, but the distance between them seems more than they can bridge. When their deferential Japanese mother, Hikari, is diagnosed with dementia and gives Rachel power of attorney, Rachel’s domineering father, Killian becomes enraged.

In a rare moment of lucidity, Hikari asks Rachel for a book in her sewing room, and Rachel enlists her sister’s help in the search. The book—which tells the tale of real-life female samurai Tomoe Gozen, an epic saga of love, loss, and conflict during twelfth-century Japan—reveals truths about Drew and Rachel’s relationship that resonate across the centuries, connecting them in ways that turn their differences into assets.

From Chapter One:

“People in my family are pathologically incapable of asking for help. It’s probably the only tradition we have. Call it pride or stubbornness or fear of rejection, even—each of us is our own island. No matter what anyone’s going through, we pretend everything’s fine, just fine, thanks for asking, and we soldier on.

“Take my mother. My mother never asked me or my sister for anything. Not for help with the dishes or cooking. Not for a Christmas or birthday present. Not for even a simple hug.

“But I always believed my mother had deeper needs. Wants she could not express out loud, even when she could still communicate. Maybe even desires I was afraid to ask her about, in case I couldn’t help her.

“Except for today. Today she broke through her cocoon and, finally, now of all times, asked.

“I’ll do anything I can to help her. I wish she’d always known that.”

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