The BUZZ: Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection, by the bestselling author of The Secret Life of Bees. Avoid the club’s version if you don’t want O’s notes scattered throughout the book.
The GIST: Based on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters from Charleston who spearheaded abolitionist and feminist movements. The novel begins on Sarah’s eleventh birthday in 1803, when her wealthy parents give her a slave girl as a present. Ten year-old Hetty (Handful) is meant to be Sarah’s handmaid. But there is something unusual about Sarah. After witnessing the brutal beating of a slave when she was four, the child never gets over it. Unlike her family and their community, she doesn’t want to own a human being. She sneaks into her father’s law library and copies a manumission statement to set Handful free. The next day she finds the document torn in half at her door. She and Handful become very close, but cannot overcome the stifling burdens slavery places on their relationship. The story follows them both for thirty-five years, through losses, humiliations, oppressions and injustices of every kind. Both women struggle to preserve their spirit in the face of misogyny and bigotry.
The WRITING: Tender and moving. Written in the first person, one chapter is in Sarah’s voice, and the next in Handful’s. The voices are very distinct and precisely unique. Events are narrated from these two perspectives, which is interesting and often conflicted. Kidd sets up a pattern in which the reader can glimpse contrasting perceptions of the same event, from the viewpoint of different stations in society. It’s clever and disturbing. Descriptions of the treatment of slaves, especially the punishments for breaking rules, are graphic and difficult to read. The characters are strong, bright women who are stifled and miserable within the confines of their roles. The author connects gender inequity with slavery, as both Sarah and Handful live repressed lives on different levels. Freedom is explored as a concept in themes of religion, politics, family and friendship. Kidd masterfully blends mystical and spiritual elements within realistic and historical foundations.
BUY or BORROW?: Buy. This story digs deep, and I think I need to reread it to absorb its many layers.
QUOTE: “There’s no pain on earth that doesn’t crave a benevolent witness.”