Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love. As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
This is one of those stories that stayed with me beyond finishing the book in a positive way, which is sort of a rarity for me. The author was effective in rebirthing the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina (“Nina”), and bringing the predominantly fictional character, Hettie, to life. As I read this story, I became immersed into their world, as if I was them, living during their times, feeling their frustrations, struggles, and internal and external prisons. With this alone, the author was prolific in building the world in which the story took place, and most importantly, the souls of the main characters, so that I, as a reader, could fully understand them and their desires, as if they were my own.
Within the main characters, Sarah and Hettie, though their position in life from the outside seemed to contrast clearly, they very much shared the same limitations. Neither one of them could be who they wanted to be or live as they wanted to live. They were confined by the social constructs of their time and were viewed less than human. Of course, Hettie’s position of a slave was much graver than Sarah’s position of being solely a woman, Sarah’s love and ultimate dream for Hettie could not be achieved by where she stood in society, so it was nothing short of inspiring, when she found the courage to get away from it all, to embrace the person she was told she could never be, and find a better ending for not only herself, but Hettie.
As I completed this story, I found the character of Sarah speaking to me the most. Sarah was that different and ambitious child with bold dreams that were crushed by those—her family especially, around her. For years, all this kept her in a box that prevented her from living the life she wanted, thus leading to a sort of depression. It wasn’t until she was able to get away from her environment that she was able to surround herself with others who shared her goals, eventually leading her to doing remarkable things. She is definitely someone I want to aspire to.
As for negatives, there is none with this story. The author’s writing style was vivid, full of life, and moving. At times, I forgot I was actually reading a book, I felt like I was there, living the lives of Sarah and Hettie. In short, it was a thought provoking and entertaining read.
I would recommend this story truthfully to any reader. Though this is historical fiction, the subject matter and the lives of Sarah and Hettie will touch anyone, especially those who are struggling to live out their lives in truth, be their true selves, be authentically fearless.
5 out of 5 stars. For all the things I mentioned above: inspiring, vivid, moving, thought provoking, entertaining.