by Sue Monk Kidd
373 pages, hardcover
Reviewed by Kenetha J. Stanton
Sarah and Angelina Grimké were sisters who grew up as part of the slave-owning Charleston, South Carolina, aristocracy in the early nineteenth century. As adults, they converted to Quakerism and became outspoken abolitionists and early women’s rights advocates. In fact, they went farther than most abolitionists of the day in calling for full racial equality, and their work drew many women to the cause of abolition. One of Sarah’s pamphlets would influence Harriet Beecher Stowe’s writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fifteen years later, and their women’s rights advocacy predated the Seneca Convention by ten years. The Grimké sisters were two of the most famous women of their day, and regularly interacted with many other notable figures of that time. They paid the price for their views; they were banished from their native city and often reviled for their work.
As has often happened to women throughout history, their story has largely been forgotten, despite their fame and the far-reaching effects of their work during their lifetimes. Sue Monk Kidd lives in Charleston and had never heard of them until she encountered their names in 2007 as part of a list of 999 names of influential women in history in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. As she began researching their story, she decided that these sisters’ story would be a great fit for her next novel as a “thickly imagined story” inspired by their lives, particularly the life of the older sister, Sarah.
The novel begins in 1803 on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ten-year-old Hetty (named Handful by her mother) as her personal slave for her birthday present. She fights this gift but is powerless to prevent it at that age. Thus begins this intertwined story of Sarah and Handful, with alternating chapters from each point of view. Although the girls initially become close and those ties remain over the course of their lives, the difference in their status is an ever-present strain on the relationship, with Sarah feeling guilty and struggling with her own internalized racism and Handful feeling resentful of Sarah’s privilege and inability to protect her at key points.
The book follows their parallel stories for thirty-five years, as Sarah grows to adulthood, leaves home to go north, and is eventually joined by her younger sister. Meanwhile, Handful becomes dangerously entwined in the 1818 slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey, a free black man who was executed, along with his lieutenants, for his role in the plot. The connection between Sarah and Handful over the years is set against the contrast of their stations in life, yet both women are fighting to free themselves from the bonds that imprison them. Although Sarah has more physical freedom in many ways, it takes her longer to develop the mental fortitude to fight the system as Handful does.
As always, Kidd does a beautiful job of evoking a time and place in her story with details of the sights, sounds, and smells of the city in that day. Her alternating chapters bring to life two characters with distinct voices and points of view that provide a rich counterpoint to the story as it unfolds. The tension she holds of the connection between the two women and the guilt and resentment that separates them through the years is skillfully done and avoids dipping into the realm of sentimentality. Despite covering thirty-five years in several extended chunks of time, the story moves along at a quick pace, engaging and absorbing the reader in the unfolding of the story and the development of the characters. It is a hard book to put down!
In the afterword, Kidd thoroughly explains which parts of the story were factual, which were imagined, and which were changed from fact to enhance the storyline. Hetty did in fact exist and was given to Sarah for her eleventh birthday, but she died of unspecified disease a few years later. Perhaps because Handful was, therefore, more of an invention than Sarah, or perhaps because of the harshness of her life situation, Handful comes to life more richly in the novel than does the better-documented Sarah. Despite this and other details that were changed or invented as needed, the gist of the historical record is well preserved in this fictional account. The combination of engaging fictional narrative with the outlines of the historical record provide an enjoyable means of learning more about the Grimké sisters, the early abolitionist movement, and the early women’s rights movements during this period. It’s a good reminder of how much has been accomplished over the last two centuries and how much hard work and sacrifice has gone into the movements that have created change, lest we take those for granted as we continue to work for full equality for all people.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in any of these historical topics as well as to anyone who enjoys a rich story of complicated relationships between women. Those who enjoyed Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees will find this novel to be a must read.
© 2014 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today