What a glorious book this is.
Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.
I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country. They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.
Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.
Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.
I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.
This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.
Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
history in general:
If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.
This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.
If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.
The rules for this month were:
500 words or less.
First word must be ‘new’.
Story must include a list of some kind, and the words ‘present’ and ‘desert’.
For more info on Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
And here’s my little story:
STRAWS by Denise Newton
“New wife, new life, New wife, new life, new wife…” I mutter the words from Ed’s email like an evil mantra.
His new partner, his new life. I’m stuck here in this endless loop of single parenting, unless Ed stoops to the occasional visit; grocery shopping (also endless); laundry and housework (ditto). Nineteen years of marriage and guess who drew the short straw?
“Where’s the list?” I ask Elsie now. She’s wriggling in her seat belt like she wants to escape. It’s hot, the temperature gauge tipping 42 degrees. The Saturday morning traffic belongs in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. The backs of my legs are sticking to the car seat. A mistake to wear a skirt today. I thought it’d be cooler. But no, my legs are in their own special desert under the dash, manufacturing sweat like we truly are arriving at Inferno Central.
I grit my teeth.
“I’m thirsty, Mum,” she says again, in that particular tone that is like pressing on a bruise. “Can we stop at McDonald’s for a slushie?”
“Elsie, have I ever taken you to McDonald’s?”
A small silence.
I pull into the car park and let out a quiet groan. The only free space is a long walk from the cool of the air-conditioned shopping mall. I rummage in the messy back seat of the car, retrieve the shopping list, grab some bags, turn to Elsie.
Grit my teeth again.
“Come on, let’s go in and get this over with.”
She scrambles out, a little monkey in her purple shorts and blue Peppa Pig T-shirt.
Forty minutes later we are through the checkout, shopping bags stacked in the trolley. I stop at the automatic door, turn to look at my daughter.
“Hey, before we go out and get hot all over again, what say we get milkshakes at the cafe?”
She gives me a huge smile.
We order chocolate milkshakes and I lean back in my seat, looking at Elsie.
“You know Charlotte?” she says to me through the straw. I nod. Charlotte is Elsie’s third best friend. When you are in Year One, there is a strict pecking order of friendship that must be observed.
“Charlotte’s birthday is in three days and she can’t stop talking about the presents she wants.”
“Oh?” I know where this was leading – a wish list, a none- too- gentle hint for her own upcoming birthday.
Elsie says, her mouth all chocolatey, “I told Charlotte that I don’t want lots of presents for my birthday this year. I want to have a day with you at the mall, shopping and stuff. And milkshakes.” She beams. “I really like shopping with you.”
Now I know who got the short straw.