My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I started this book back in April because my mother recommended it from her book group and I wanted to talk about it with her. Of course by the time I finished it, almost 7 months later, her book group had moved on and she asked me, “what was that book about again?” It took me so long because I started it in the midst of reading several other books and I had to put it aside for a while. This happens to me more than it used to–the long breaks, the stopping and starting again–and I wish it would stop. I feel my attention span contracting, slamming shut like a big oak door that I have to push open again with great effort.
However you finally get there, this book is worth it. The author writes that she learned of Sarah and Angelina Grimke later in life, and was inspired to write about them so that their stories would be more widely known. I too had not heard of the Grimke sisters before this book, which seems odd given that they were the first American female advocates of the abolition of slavery and of women’s rights.
The author fictionalizes Sarah and Angelina’s lives while keeping most of the basic historical facts intact. She worked from their public writings and their letters to give them their voices. And she added the fictional character of Hetty (Handful), a black girl given to the child Sarah as a slave, and whom Sarah tries to set free. The story is told from Sarah’s and Handful’s viewpoints in alternating chapters labeled with their names.
I appreciated the technique of alternating viewpoints, especially as a writer who wants to use it in her own work. I didn’t find it difficult as a reader to go from Handful to Sarah and back again, and I enjoyed both of their voices. The last book that I read that used this technique, All the Light You Cannot See, occasionally fell into an echo chamber, wherein one character’s story seemed to mirror the other’s too closely, not just in voice but also in theme. Kidd avoids this pitfall: the chasm that separates Sarah and Handful’s lives is too deep to bridge, except sporadically, even with empathy and good intentions on both sides.
Kidd also avoids cheap optimism, in spite of her story’s muted happy ending. We rejoice that the ship they are on at the end is sailing Handful and Sky to freedom with Sarah. But we have also seen through Sarah’s eyes what “freedom” meant for women in that time and place. It didn’t mean fame, fortune, or even love. It meant a quiet life– except when your unpopular views were being vilified and burned. It meant poverty, dignity, and solitude, and the likely estrangement from family and from much of what you thought you held dear. This book lays bare the incompleteness of the struggle for equality, and the quiet heroism of those who struggle, both then and now.