The story takes place over three and a half decades, beginning in 1803. At first the book seemed to be kind of the same old, same old theme, a combination of recent books, The Help, The Kitchen House and The House Girl. Two thirds to three quarters of the way through, it changed course and became a book that could stand on its own. It is historic fiction; the characters are true to themselves, those that are real, like the Grimkes and those like Handful(Hetty) and Mauma (Charlotte), who are made up out of whole cloth. Hetty represents an excellent example of the awful life a slave was forced to live, in a society driven by greed and callousness, a society that continued the practice of slavery until it was forced to stop, a society that required slaves to dream of sprouting wings in order to be free.
For her 11th birthday, Sarah Grimke’s mother presented her with a gift, her own personal slave, Hetty (Handful). Sarah does not want a slave; slavery disgusted her. She tried to write an order to free her but her parents refused to accept her decision. It was the way of life in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah must submit to the societal demands of the upper class. Hetty and Sarah were about the same age, they grew close, and their lives followed a parallel road, albeit in opposite directions most of the time. Their stories will pull on the reader’s emotions. The only true parallel between Sarah and her “lady’s maid”, Hetty, was that they both must be taught their “proper place” in society. Hetty, a slave, had only one job, to please her master. Her life was always at the mercy of others. Sarah, a free woman of Charleston society, had only one main job, to find a husband that was suitable and equal to or better than her own station in life. Both of the young girls wanted more freedom and more opportunity, but for one, it was out of the question.
While Sarah and her mother Mary seemed to feel hemmed in by their lack of freedom, they at least could move about at will and choose a good deal of the life they wanted. Hetty and her mother (Mauma), had freedom to move about only on the plantation and may leave and go to market, only if given a pass and permission. They were always subject to scrutiny, abuse and punishment with insufficient reason. Both the Grimkes and their fellow aristocratic families living in Charleston, had a form of freedom unknown to Mauma, Hetty and the slaves, yet they, too, felt imprisoned, in a sense, by the constraints placed on women in the society in which they lived, a society that viewed slaves as less than people and women as less than men.
When Sarah’s mother had another child, Sarah, robbed of her career opportunities by the protocols of her day, begged her mother to make her godmother to the child. She acquiesced and Nina became more like her daughter than her sister. As years passed, they became great friends, philosophically attuned to each other, and the two sisters became trailblazers for the cause of anti slavery and women’s rights. They were not fictional characters, although the narrative around them was constructed by the author. In real life, the sisters fought for equal rights and equality for all. Their story and their courage is to be greatly admired. They set the stage for the likes of Cady Stanton and future freedom fighters.
Sarah had an independent spirit, which her parents wished to break or control. Her father did not believe in women’s rights to education or professions. Her mother was often a cruel and harsh taskmaster, trying to show her how to be a “lady” in society, how to handle a household and how to discipline the slaves. Mary, Sarah’s mother, thought slavery was a bad situation, but one that was the way of life and must continue. She could be kind-hearted but was more often shown to be severe and pitiless in meting out her form of justice and punishment. Forgiveness was not one of her main attributes. She, like all women of that time, lacked the freedom to do as she wished in life, as far as voicing her opinions, obtaining an advanced education and/or entering a profession. Perhaps it was her own frustration which made her cruel. Her daughters eventually chose a far better way to vent their dissatisfaction with their lives and the lives of the oppressed.
It seemed shallow, at times, and incongruous, to compare the lifestyles of the two women, in opposite societies, as we observed the progress of their lives. Sarah, in all circumstances was always better off than Hetty, though each did eventually have to adjust to the confines of their station in life and the limits that “society” placed upon their actions. Sarah sometimes seemed naïve, even as an adult; she could, quite possibly, eventually have granted freedom to Hetty had she retained ownership of her, but she returned her to her mother whom she knew was cruel, a terrible taskmaster and a mean disciplinarian. So, despite all her protestations, I questioned her decision. Surely she understood the awful consequences that would follow it. While Sarah always nursed her emotions, Hetty always had to nurse her broken body, which was abused by slave masters and owners, and her mother would only make Hetty’s life more difficult.
I believe one of the author’s intentions might have been to show the tragedies and the weaknesses of the entire slave and free society from both perspectives.. What set this book apart from others like it was the nature of the sister’s involvement in the fight to end slavery. What makes it so compelling is the fact that their suffering, their sacrifices, their toils, and the fruits of their efforts really did set the stage for future, more well-known, abolitionists and feminists.