This book has been lying on the shelf for over a year. I had got it through the TSBC Exchange. Someone else (I still don’t know who) had picked it up for me. So, it was an author I was not familiar with. And February happens to be Black History month. So, best time to write about the book. I have known about black history only through the books I have read – in the famous Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and New York by Ken Rutherfurd. In India, we did have a similar story of slavery between landlords and their field-hands. It may still be existing in the country but not read much about it. However, this book narrates history through the point of view of the two protagonists.
’Handful’ as named by her mother Charlotte or ’Hetty’ as named by her owners is a black slave girl. ’Sarah Grimke’ is the middle daughter of the Grimkes. On Sarah’s 11th birthday, 10-year-old Hetty is decorated with purple ribbons and given to Sarah as a gift. Hetty is to be Sarah’s personal slave. It is the practice in the Grimke household. All the children have their personal slaves. And Madam Grimke runs the household with an iron hand. Every mistake is punished. Sarah is appalled. Ever since she had seen a slave being beaten up when she was around 5 years old, she does not agree to the slavery system. She tries to return Hetty back. She even refuses to accept Hetty as her slave.
Charlotte, Hetty’s mother, sees Sarah’s predicament and tells her, if she really cares about Hetty, she should set her free. And she keeps reminding Sarah of the promise. Being caught between her mother and Charlotte, she decides to teach Hetty to read and write. So, they have secret study sessions in her room because teaching a slave to read and write is illegal in South Carolina. Sarah and Hetty become friends till Madam Grimke finds out and all hell breaks loose. Hetty is punished physically. So is Sarah, She is not allowed to enter the family’s library or read books.
Sarah is a bright girl. Her father had encouraged her to read Voltaire and learn Latin. She wanted to become a lawyer. But, women in the South are not allowed to work or be independent. And thus her dreams are quashed. She tries to teach at her Sunday church school. But again, her ideas are considered too rebellious and stopped. Because, instead of teaching about the lord, she teaches them other songs.
The teaching fiasco affects Hetty and Sarah’s friendship. They are never to become close friends again. But, they are facing similar struggles – Hetty to become free of slavery, Sarah to be free of her family and society obligations and norms.
At the end of the book, we realise that Sarah Grimke is a real character. The life is fictitious, but the history is very real. It is a very beautifully written book. I could empathise with the characters. I loved the character of Charlotte, Hetty’s mother. She is a woman with a mind of her own though she is bound by slavery. She does everything possible to cause havoc in the lives of the Grimkes. She is a seamstress. She would steal beautiful cloth, needles, or do something, anything to affect the smooth running of the house. She is the inspiration for Hetty to find independence. Thus, Hetty too grows up with a rebellious streak.
One of the most beautiful lines in the book is when Hetty tells Sarah, that both of them are not free. She says, Hetty is bound in life, but her mind is free whereas, Sarah is free in life, but her mind is not free. Check out the best quotes here.
That sums up the entire struggle of the girls as well as the civil rights struggle.
It’s highly recommended for historical fiction lovers.
Image courtesy : Amazon.com