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Author Robin Oliveira returns to her roots

Author Robin Oliveira returns to her roots

Character returns in Loudonville native's "Winter Sisters"
Author Robin Oliveira returns to her roots
Robin Oliveira
Photographer: photo provided

Author Robin Oliveira is returning to her roots, both in her latest book and in person this week.

Oliveira, who is originally from Loudonville but lives just outside Seattle, Washington, will be visiting the Schenectady County Public Library on Thursday, May 3, and talking about her latest book, “Winter Sisters.”

The novel takes place in Albany in 1879 and tackles an issue that’s not too far from the mind’s of many people today: consent.

“I was doing research [for] the book I thought I was going to write . . . I ran into the fact that in New York State and in many other states in the Union in the year 1879, the age of consent was 10 years old. That was shocking to me as it is to anybody who hears it,” Oliveira said.

Two young sisters, Emma and Claire, go missing during a major snowstorm in Albany. Family friend Dr. Mary Sutter is determined to find them. When what happened to the girls is revealed, Sutter must fight against stereotypes and misogynistic beliefs both in and out of the courtroom.

Sutter is a strong protagonist and one of Oliveira’s most memorable characters, originally introduced in her New York Times bestseller, “My Name is Mary Sutter.”

“People always asked me whether or not I was going to write about her again. But I couldn’t think of a single reason to,” Oliveira said.

Then, as she began to delve into the history of Albany, she found that in the year 1879, there were five women physicians practicing in the area.

“I thought, ‘here it is, Mary Sutter is going to come back.’ I thought maybe she was going to make a cameo, [but] she’s such a strong character that she wouldn’t be quiet. So I just kept writing into her,” Oliveira said, “It snowballed. I didn’t intend to write another book about her. [But] she was the right girl at the right time.”

The storyline that “Winter Sisters” encompasses, certainly needs a powerful protagonist such as Sutter. Sexual violence is difficult to write about, especially when it concerns children, according to Oliveira.

But she’s found that some readers have misunderstood her intent in writing about it.

“Some of what I’ve been seeing online is that people are shying away from the book because of the content. I want people to understand that the focus for writing this book was mostly around agency for women. I write about 19th-century glass ceilings,” Oliveira said.

Indeed, much of the book is steeped in the history of those glass ceilings and in the zeitgeist of Albany in the late 1800s. “Winter Sisters,” is deftly researched. Oliveira spent many months doing in-depth research on the city of Albany; poring over trials from the 19th century (which the Albany Law School Library was able to provide), as well as newspaper articles, maps and other historical documents. But there was no better place to research for the Shaker High grad.

“It’s the place of my childhood and that’s where my imagination resides. I find it very easy to write about Albany and I also find it very intriguing because of the level of history there,” Oliveira said.

However, her research at times was disconcerting.

“ . . . even though the age of consent is now raised, women are still shamed, intimidated, blamed, their reputation is ruined when they get on the stand. That was a lot of what I wanted to portray . . . how little has changed. Women are still in terrible trouble when they report crime and the burden of proof is put on them it’s the exact same approach, we haven’t moved forward one iota,” Oliveira said.

In an era of the Me Too movement, “Winter Sisters,” is a chilling reminder of how long the fight for equality and against sexual violence has been going on.

But Oliveira wants the novel to give people hope.

“It’s about how love conquers in this book more than the kind of evil that’s portrayed,” Oliveira said.

After “Winter Sisters” came out earlier this year, Oliveira took a bit of a break.

“This one was tough to write. I’ve taken some time off,” Oliveira said.

But since the book came out in February, she’s already dived into another. Although this one won’t be based in the Capital Region, she thinks she’ll be returning to the area with a future book.

“When I think of setting my books, two now have been set in Albany and the other in Paris, but I expect that I’ll return again. It stokes my imagination in a way that even I don’t understand,” Oliveira said.

She also has some ideas for the strong-willed Mary Sutter.

“She will come back I think because there’s a wonderful literary tradition of trilogies. But not in this next book,”

On Thursday, May 3, Oliveira will talk about and sign copies of “Winter Sisters” at the Schenectady County Public Library. The event starts at 6:30 p.m. For more information visit scpl.org or call the library at 518-388-4500.

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