This must read novel is a powerful story of women finding their voices, being courageous and standing-up for their freedom in the face of the most dreadful oppression. The story is told through chapters alternately narrated by the main characters. Sarah is the daughter of the Grimke family, who are members of Charleston’s social elite. Handful as named by her mother Charlotte, is the enslaved girl called Hetty by her Grimke owners. Their vastly different realities provide vivid illustrations of life in a world were “owning people is as natural as breathing”. Sue Monk Kidd a native of South Carolina weaves a tale that sheds light on the toll of slavery on whites as well as blacks.
Sarah evolves from a southern belle tightly contained by the constraints of society to an outspoken abolitionist and suffragist. Early in her childhood Sarah is silenced by the horror of witnessing the brutality towards a slave. She cannot find her voice and when she does it’s as if she “pulled words up from her throat like she was raising water from a well”. This affliction stays with Sarah throughout most of her life. Yet overtime her intellect and spirit cannot abide the torture of her privileged life and she speaks out releasing herself along with her younger sister Nina.
We witness the transformation of Handful from naïve child to a woman warrior fighting for freedom. Charlotte nurtures Handful’s desire for freedom with uplifting tales of African ancestors who had wings to fly. Together they strengthen their hope by creating a spirit tree that holds their dreams. Charlotte demonstrates to Handful, how to escape the ties that bind, with her own attempts at freedom. They are inseparable until Handful is moved into the big house. Handful is presented with a lavender ribbon tied around her neck to Sarah as an eleventh birthday gift. Appalled by being a slave owner Sarah tries to release Handful by producing a letter of manumission to no avail. Charlotte cunningly extracts a promise from the morally distressed Sarah to do the right thing for Handful. The journey of their lifetimes begins.
Over time Handful and Sarah build an alliance not necessarily built on affection, but built on a trust for their mutual disdain for the chains of slavery and the desire for freedom. Kidd based her fictionalized character Sarah Grimke on the real, historical abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Many of the events in the novel are true to the past and shine a light on the activism of Sarah, her sister Angelina “Nina”, Angelina’s husband Theodore Weld, Demark Vesey and others. Although, the character of Handful is wholly the creation of Kidd, there is mention in historical documents of a girl slave named Hetty being owned by the real Grimke family. It’s a remarkable story grounded in truth that expands the reader’s knowledge of American history.