Sue Monk Kidd’s novel of two women in the pre-Civil War South will stay with you, I promise. I’ll say no more.
“There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, ‘Handful, your granny-mauma saw if for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left the magic behind.’” Thus the story of Hetty (Handful) and Sarah Grimke, slave and mistress, opens in Charleston in 1803 as each is shoved out of childhood into the roles they must occupy. Hetty, given the name Handful by her mother is given as a maid to Sarah who, rendered mute by a slave-beating witnessed when she was four, refuses the gift. She will not own a slave and, when given Hetty anyway, teaches her to read—a daring and grave offense in a world heading toward civil war.
The rest of the book tells the parallel story of Hetty and Sarah, soulmates, as they struggle to invent the wings that will free them, and pay the price. For Sarah, who aspires to be a lawyer and abolish slavery: The truth,” she (her mother) said, “is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good.”
For Hetty, “We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and one you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck.”
For me, the power of the story is in its telling. The reading rivets us with her language as she brings to life the intimate details as well as the abysmal cruelty of slave life in the Nineteenth Century South, and the miraculous resiliency of Hetty and her Mauma, who preserves the terrible episodes in her story quilt. The author then turns her equally fine ear to the language of the slave-owners, to Sarah’s world and its expectations as the plantation class approaches the dissolution that lies ahead.
The voices of Hetty and Sarah are as distinct as the separate societies they occupy, yet the two are bonded. I often stop to reread passages, just to let the words and rhythms sink in and I invite you to do the same. It’s a read that reaches the soul.