The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

Book review by
Kate Pavao, Common Sense Media
The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place Book Poster Image
Dark but fun 1890 murder mystery has feminist message.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers learn a bit about the limited roles of women in 1890 society and may contemplate and discuss and how things have changed since then. 

Positive Messages

Lies can put you in danger and hurt other people. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The girls occasionally hurt one another, but they're also loyal, going to great lengths to stay together at the school. Smart Louise is good at crime solving and determined to pursue a career in medicine.

Violence

An adult brother and a sister are poisoned to death, and their bodies are hidden in a garden. An elderly man dies. A dog is drugged. 

Sex

Some flirting and kissing. Some characters have crushes; others have secret romances. A woman gossips about a man who "consorts" with women.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some adults smoke cigars and drink, including a reverend who preaches against drinking. At a party, a girl wonders if there's alcohol in the punch. A dog is drugged. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, by Julie Berryis more romp than realism, but this murder mystery, set in an English boarding school in 1890, has a disturbing opening: An adult brother and sister are poisoned to death, and their bodies are hidden in a garden. Later, an elderly man dies, and a dog is drugged. One of the characters, "Disgraceful Mary Jane," uses her charms to stun many of the male characters and kisses the town constable at a party. Other characters have crushes and romantic entanglements. Some adult characters smoke cigars and drink, including a reverend who preaches against drinking. 

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What's the story?

When the unloving headmistress and her awful brother suddenly die during Sunday dinner, the seven girls at Saint Ethaldreda's School for Young Ladies in 1890 England -- including their leader, Smooth Kitty Heaton, flirty Disgraceful Mary Jane, brilliant Pocked Louise Dudley, and more -- decide to bury the bodies in the backyard. They prefer to live free at school rather then be separated from one another and return to unhappy homes. Stout Alice even agrees to impersonate their headmistress, with the helpful makeup skills of morbid Dour Elinor. But a murderer is still on the loose, and even as the girls work together to both solve the mystery and cover the crime, the town constable and other adults suspect something is going on at the girls' school.

Is it any good?

THE SCANDALOUS SISTERHOOD OF PRICKWILLOW PLACE is a clever murder mystery filled with loyal -- but rather outrageous -- protagonists. Dull Martha is pretty dumb and constantly mixes up basic facts; Dour Elinor wants to give the bodies Egyptian-style autopsies; and Stout Alice, who has to impersonate their elderly headmistress, channels her rather effortlessly.

Readers who can get past some of the grizzly details (the girls end up digging graves for murder victims, and one sleeps in the bed that a dead body has just been in), will have fun guessing the central mystery -- and wondering if the girls will be able to keep up their ruse as the facts start lining up against them. Close readers will appreciate the more subtle messages about women's limited options in the late 1800s, which is what drives these characters to go to extreme -- and sometimes illegal -- lengths. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the girls' decision to cover up a murder. Why do they do it? Is their decision justified?

  • Were you surprised by who was ultimately responsible for the crime? Whom did you suspect? Which clues were you tracking? How does The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place compare with other mysteries you've read? 

  • A woman tells Kitty, "Some women are born with more independence than society offers them." What roles -- according to the book -- were available to women in 1890? How have opportunities changed for women? 

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