Bookworm, writer, radio host—I blog about history, fiction, and publishing in the Internet Age. You can find the full blog on my website. This space is for books.
A beautifully written, emotionally compelling story of slavery in the early 19th-century United States, told from the contrasting perspectives of Sarah Grimké, a Charleston planter's daughter, and Hetty (Handful), the slave given to Sarah by her parents as a maid to mark Sarah's 11th birthday. With her younger sister Angelina, Sarah traveled the path from pampered society darling to become an abolitionist, a voice for racial equality, and a feminist before any of these things was fashionable. As the suthor notes, in the 1830s the Grimké sisters were the most famous—and the most infamous—women in the country, regularly assailed in both the relatively liberal North and their own home city.
The book does a great job of tackling the complex and difficult subject of slavery, revealing the violence and brutality inherent in the system without turning those on either side into caricatures. Descriptions are rich and often beautiful. If there is a problem, it lies in the character of Sarah. Perhaps it is the nature of crusaders to value principles over people, but I kept wishing that Sarah would understand that, even though her life was restricted because she was born a girl, her race and status gave her power to help the individual slaves within her parents' household—something she too often overlooked in pursuit of some grand but ultimately ineffective gesture. She did not have to choose; that she so often chose principle I found frustrating. Some of the events in Handful's life also seemed contrived, as the story went on, to ensure that she wound up in the right place at the right time to take part in or observe a particular moment in history rather than because it made sense for someone who had suffered as she had to behave in that way.
But on the whole, I was glad to learn so much more about the Grimké sisters, who until now had been not much more than names to me, and I think this is a book well worth reading.