Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the first white and female abolitionists from their homeland in Charleston, South Carolina. According to historical accounts, the sisters were steadfastly rebellious and fought not only for abolition of slavery, but racial and gender equality. In Sue Monk Kidd’s book she creates the characters she imagines these two women to be. The book proves thorough research by Kidd.
Clearly being more inclined to writing about the life of Sarah Grimke, Kidd also creates a character for a slave girl – Hetty “Handful” Grimke – who Sarah receives as a present for her 11th birthday. Kidd narrates the book from the perspective of these two women as they became dear friends over the next thirty-five years.
The story begins in November 1803 with the surprising and embarrassing event of Handful being presented to Sarah; the novel is an innovative account of the lives of the aristocrat and the slave girl. Sarah’s appetite for equality and rights starts then and there. Soon after, she promises Handful’s mother, Charlotte, that she will help free Handful. Sarah then struggles, not just to free her own slave, but to abolish slavery entirely.
Sarah has access to her father’s library where she is able to obtain more knowledge than considered fitting for a female. Although her aims are important and necessary to her, they are considered ridiculous and defiant in her society. Experiencing difficulty with the promise that she made to Handful’s mother, she decides that another form of freedom is to teach Handful how to read, which is illegal and for which one can be punished. It helps the girls keep in close contact through everything else they are about to battle.
Sarah and Handful get themselves into more and more trouble and both experience hardships. Charlotte has disappeared for an extended period of time, Handful’s foot is destroyed in the “Work House” where slaves are punished, Sarah is heartbroken repeatedly, and ostracized for her beliefs and defiance. Then, Angelina comes along, like a blessing. After Sarah leaves for Philadelphia, becomes a Quaker and is practically banished from her hometown, Angelina helps with the communication between her and Handful; she eventually becomes Sarah’s loyal companion in rebellion.
The sisters revolt in bold ways: sitting in the negro pews; writing to the newspapers and distributing pamphlets with messages against slavery and inequality; living with slaves, and speaking at public meetings. Handful is also rebelling in her own way, sneaking out and playing a major role in the planning of an unsuccessful slave revolt.
This novel leaves the reader with feelings of fierce strength and hope. Both narrators tirelessly work towards their goals of freedom and purpose. Their armies are small and it seems to both that no one will understand what they are fighting for.
When reading, you feel as if you, too, are participating in the war, and every disappointment, victory, depression period and successful encounter, automatically becomes yours. Both women fabricate their wings with each other’s help to fly to physical and mental freedom. This is an inspiring story and, like me, the reader may be favourably disposed toward learning more about the admirable Grimke sisters.