Since I’m one of the last people I know to read this book, I was familiar with its premise and prepared to find something emotional, powerful and inspiring (the words that pop up most often). I found a good and emotional read, but I didn’t get the powerful and inspiring. Is it me?
According to the author’s note, she set out to write about the Grimke sisters, real life abolitionists and women’s rights activists, mostly forgotten by history. Much of the novel is told by Sarah, a fictionalized account of the sisters’ journeys from slave-holding southern belles to Quakers, writers and public speakers.
To add perspective to the novel, Sue Monk Kidd also creates the character of Hetty/Handful, a young slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Like Sarah, Handful has a strong-will, intelligence and determination. I fell in love with her from page one.
“My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.”
I love a character whose wisdom comes from the heart and not the head.
“you got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”
It’s a good story, a slave and her mistress, neither of whom wants to be tied to the other, developing a friendship that can only lead to pain. In the tradition of good historic fiction, there are many details of life in Charleston in the early 19th century and as Sarah makes her journey northward, the novel is populated with historical figures.
But, as much as I was engrossed in the story (I flew through this novel in 2 days), I was bothered by the emotional distance between me and the characters. Handful and Sarah seem to be telling their stories as recollections from some unnamed point in the future which lacked immediacy for me.
I also kept waiting for the action of Sarah’s story to begin. It’s not until the last third of the novel that she becomes fully animated and involved in her own life. This might be the trouble in basing fiction on real people. The author is somewhat beholden to the slow pace at which real life takes place.
“I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me, I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”
I wanted so much more of her story once she’s out from under her mother’s cane and her relationship with Nina once they’re on the road speaking. There seems to be so much undiscovered drama in the tension between women’s and slaves’ rights.
But that’s not the book Sue Monk Kidd wrote. She wrote the story of two women trapped and struggling to break free.
“My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”