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’.