Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
~ Synopsis from Amazon
After the horrible events in Charleston last month, I decided to revisit this book that I had started and stopped reading earlier this year.
I had dropped the book because I was having trouble staying vested in the story. I liked the beginning of the book and thought the first hundred pages (when Hetty and Sarah are kids) were really strong, but then the two girls grow up, and then the story crawls its way to a standstill.
Now, I get why the book’s pace had to slow down, both the girls are at a crossroads in their lives. Hetty has absolutely no control over her life, and neither does Sarah, and so there are huge sections of the book where they are just static. Of course, this stasis is necessary to show how both their lives were so hollow, but I can’t say it was entertaining or easy to read.
In the later half of the book though, Sarah manages to break the bonds shackling her in Charleston, and is able to build a new life in the north. And this is when the story again comes to life. Unfortunately there’s not enough detail lavished on Sarah’s triumphs. She and her sister do some pretty kick-ass things and I wanted more of that and not all those snoozefest sections about her trying to become a Quaker minister and failing.
Another disappointment was the run of the mill writing. I don’t mind a little slack in the story if the writing makes up for it. However that is not the case here.
Basically, what I am saying is the book is a bit of a slog in the middle, but once I got over the hump, I found myself racing away in the end.
What I loved at the end of the book is that after the story, my edition had a small writer’s note that clarifies which sections of the book are true to life, and which are fictionalized. I really appreciated knowing this as until I read this book I was quite ignorant of the importance of the Grimke sisters in the abolition and feminist movements.
Overall, I would say this was an interesting book, and I am glad I pursued it despite the lacklustre middle. I am not sure that it is all that deserving of the hype surrounding it though.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon