Wednesday, September 10, 2014


The Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, grew up in Charleston during the early 1800s.  Their father, a judge and planter, owned slaves, but Sarah and Angelina became abolitionist spokeswomen, who also became advocates for women’s rights.  This novel focuses primarily on Sarah and a mostly fictional slave, Hetty, nicknamed Handful.  I did not know until I read the Author’s Note at the end that Sarah and her sister were actual historical figures, but I began to suspect that some of the events were factual when the author started sprinkling the names of Whittier, Emerson, and Thoreau into the text.  We meet Sarah and Handful when they are both young girls.  Sarah has two goals:  to free Handful and to become an attorney.  As a child, she has no authority to free a slave, and as a girl, she has no chance of studying law.  Instead, she has to watch helplessly the atrocities her mother inflicts on Handful and Handful’s mother.  As an adult, Sarah goes North and converts to Quakerism, since the Quakers oppose slavery and  seem to embrace women as ministers.  Her quest to become a Quaker minister ultimately derails her marriage plans, and she remains single, while her sister marries abolitionist leader Theodore Weld.  The author weaves several historical events into her plot, including an aborted slave insurrection, led by a freed slave, and the use of quilts as tapestries documenting the lives of slaves who could not read and write.  Certainly the novel is well-written and engrossing, but even more admirable are the accomplishments of these two women, who predated Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and possibly influenced that author.  Sarah and Angelina Grimké were not just thinkers; they were doers who endured quite a bit of antagonism for being outspoken women and for espousing human rights.  I’m so glad I met them through this novel.

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