Sue Monk Kidd’s novel is told from two alternative viewpoints; Hetty (Handful) is a slave and Sarah is her owner. Both are opposed to slavery and whilst this would be what you would expect from an enslaved young black woman, it is more surprising that Sarah has the same innate hatred of the system. When Sarah is presented with Handful as a gift for her 11th birthday, Sarah vows that she will one day set her free. Despite the laws prohibiting it, Sarah teaches Hetty to read and write.
This book made me reflect a great deal upon those of us who are thinkers, and those of us who are doers. I am sure some are both, the two qualities are not mutually exclusive, but Sarah is dissuaded from action for many years. She succumbs to the social expectation of women at the time, and gives up on her dreams of becoming a lawyer. It simply wasn’t done. Later though, she takes courage from her more outspoken younger sister and they begin to take a proactive stance against slavery and the oppression of women. Handful and her mother, by contrast to Sarah, are more courageous. Within their limited means, they fight the system. The novel made me feel uncomfortable; if I am honest, I know that whilst I would have had a moral objection to slavery, my fear of being ostracised by my family would have prevented me from speaking out.
I was delighted to discover from the author’s notes that whilst Hetty is a fictional character, Sarah and Angelina Grimke are not. Their story is inspirational, and Monk Kidd’s novel tells their extraordinary story in an absorbing and thought-provoking work.