Author – Sue Monk Kidd
Publication – Tinder Press
Genre – Historical drama
Rating – Excellent read
The book is included in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and I must say her choice is excellent.
Set in the 1800’s in the background of slavery in South America, the book draws its inspiration from actual history and is about the Grimke’ sisters – Sarah and Angelina; daughters of a prominent Judge – John Grimke’. They were born into aristocracy with all its trappings including a house full of slaves. They were among ten siblings and were destined for the cushioned life of the Southern ladies which is – maintaining a pristine home, fine clothes, endless rounds of socialising, having children, looking after every need of their husband and managing slaves.
While remaining true to the fire of abolition and women rights that the Grimke’ sisters courageously campaigned, the author has taken several fictional liberties in telling the tale.
Sarah Grimke’ was an unusual girl child; she was the girl with ambition. Listening to her father and brothers, she wanted a real education and was left starry eyed when her father remarked that she could make the best lawyer in Charleston at a time when it was unthinkable for a girl to have a profession. A girl with unusual ideas, she was against slavery from her childhood. The shock of a slave beating at her household she witnessed when still a child, lead her to stammer all her life.
|Charlotte worked on a patchwork quilt |
in which she embroidered the story of her life
As was the custom, on coming of age she was presented with a personal slave. She tried very hard to resist this present and even appealed to her father. Her efforts came to naught and she ended up owning a human being. Her present was Hetty or Handful as her own mother- Charlotte had named her. Seamstress to the Grimke’ household, Charlotte had an ache in her heart to be free. After she received the one legged punishment (One leg and neck are tied together and the slave is whipped if they fall) the ache became the fury in her eyes. She started to go out of the estate without her mistress’ permission and take orders on the sly. The penalty was another lashing or worse the work-house (A place where convicts worked off their penalty). Charlotte still took the risk. She was saving money to buy her freedom. Charlotte even caught on to Sarah’s feelings of guilt on owning Hetty and made her promise to set Hetty free in any way she could.
The promise rankled Sarah and she set out to educate Hetty as she personally saw education as a way to freedom. Hetty was a fast learner. But she, as eleven year olds are wont to, was careless. She wrote on mud, signed her name and did not rub properly. She was caught and got a whipping. Sarah was punished with banishment from her father’s library and denial of a proper education. All Sarah’s hopes of becoming a lawyer came crashing down.
Meanwhile, Charlotte was caught out of the house by policemen. Being hauled on a wagon and taken away was the last that Sarah and Nina, about the town that day saw of her. Then she went missing. That was the last that anyone heard of her.
Handful ‘s sorrow knew no bounds as the only person she loved in the world was taken away from her. She walked round the courtyard in her sorrow and at last sat finishing the quilt in which her mother had been sewing the story of her life. Seeing the world after her mother vanished, Hetty realised she had been promoted to chief seamstress and her hands were soon full. Sarah has successfully returned her human present to her mother. But in doing so, she had condemned Hetty to an inconsiderate mistress. For Sarah’s mother was a strict disciplinarian and her steel tipped cane came down on the slaves at slightest of provocations.
In the meantime, Sarah’s father fell ill and the family wanted to send him for treatment to Philadelphia. Unable to stop Sarah influencing Nina with her radical thoughts, her mother sent Sarah to accompany her father for his treatment. Unable to come up with a cure, the doctor advised sea air at a small village along the coast of New Jersey. The judge never recovered. He died a peaceful death far away from his home. Sarah however, was far from peaceful. In a meeting that would change the course of her life, she met Israel Morris. Israel Morris was a Quaker. All Quakers rejected slavery and lived a frugal lifestyle. Against the grain of the Southern way of life, this religious sect was looked down on in the South. Sarah felt drawn to their philosophy but was loathe joining them due to social stigma. However, Israel made a deep impact on her which was not limited to his philosophy. She felt a deep attraction towards this man. However she knew it would not be reciprocated as he was married and father to six children.
Back home, slavery hit her like a whiplash in it’s cruelty. Cruelty which, the southern women did not want to look, acknowledge or worse thought the slaves “deserved it”. She was joined by her sister Nina in speaking up for the slaves. But an incident where she was booed by a crowd of people for standing up for the slaves drove her to leave for the North. Especially now that she got the news that Israel’s wife had passed away.
She took boarding in Israel’s house at countryside in Philadelphia, teaching his children. But his ever vigilant and zealous sister noticed the romantic underpinning between Sarah and Israel and forced Sarah to vacate the house. Here too Sarah could not let her ambition go and started preparing to become a minister with the Quaker community. Israel later came and proposed marriage to her but was not ready to accept her becoming a minister. Sarah chose to reject the proposal and chase her dream.
Meanwhile Nina, her little sister, now a grown woman, suffocated by the slavery and cruelty around her made her way to her elder sister. Where Sarah was contemplative, Nina was a firebrand. She spoke her mind on all issues. She wrote a letter to the leading abolitionist magazine of the day. On being printed, the letter raised a furore in the North and the South. The south felt betrayed by one of it’s own – a woman no less. The North felt it had found a voice at last which could connect with the Southern audiences. The two sisters were enlisted on a country wide tour to talk to audience against slavery. Battling her speech impediment, Sarah and Nina toured the country extorting woman to rise up against the cruelty in their backyards. The South denounced the two sisters and a warrant was issued should they return to their home-town. However, there was another impact of the speeches. So successful were they that men in large numbers thronged to hear the sisters speak. Now this was unprecedented. A woman speaking among women was fine, but a woman speaking to and being successful among men was unheard of. The Quaker community tried to dissuade the sisters from speaking to mixed audiences. However, the sisters disagreed and this added a new dimension to their campaign – that of woman’s equal rights. The sisters campaigned relentlessly over the next years.
Back home however, the dream of a slave free country was still a dream. Hetty’s mother Charlotte had come back bringing Hetty’s sister – Sky along with her. Charlotte had been taken by a slave trader and had had a cruel master. She had been branded and beaten as she continued to revolt, running away thrice. But when the master eyed her thirteen year old daughter she got ready to run away again and this time she vowed they would die trying. However, Charlotte had reached the estate to die and leave Sky in Hetty’s care. When Hetty learnt that Sky was to be sold, she made up her mind to run away with her sister and wrote a letter to Sarah. Worried, Sarah came back home with the intention of trying to buy out Hetty and her sister. When Sarah gave Hetty news of her unsuccessful parlay with her mother, Hetty resolved to go ahead with her plan. Helped by Sarah she transformed her mistress’ mourning dresses for herself and Sky, plastered some white dough and set out for the journey of her life across the sea towards freedom.