Today I’m posting a review from my archives. I read this book back in March of 2014. It is currently on the Dublin Literary Award longlist.
Covering the 35 years from 1803 to 1838, Handful (a.k.a. Hetty), a house slave for a wealthy Charleston family, and Sarah Grimké, a daughter of that elite family, tell their stories in alternating first-person chapters. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah is given Hetty as a present as her own waiting maid; her immediate reaction is to reject the gift, but she is told that her “’guardianship is legal and binding [and] there is nothing to be done about it’” (16). Her attempt to set Handful free is thwarted as well. Slowly a type of friendship develops between the girls, Sarah even breaking the law by teaching Handful how to read. As the years pass, Handful becomes an expert seamstress under the tutelage of her mother, and Sarah very slowly develops into a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights pioneer. (This novel is a fictional imagining of the early life of a historical figure; Sarah Grimké was a pioneer in speaking not just for emancipation but for racial and gender equality. Her work inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe.)
The author must be applauded for not forcing a “best friends forever” relationship on the two girls. Considering their circumstances, that would have been unbelievable. Handful explains, “I didn’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I don’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It was never a simple thing” (54). As the novel’s title clearly suggests, what the two have in common is a desire for freedom. Obviously, Handful wants to be a free woman. Sarah, on the other hand, wants to be free of the constraints imposed on her by society; she wants to have a profession and to be able to speak her mind; Sarah describes herself as being “afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations” (144). Over and over again, her aspirations are “laid to rest in the Graveyard of Failed Hopes, an all-female establishment” (88). Handful describes the role of a slave: “A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost – don’t see it, don’t hear it, but it’s always hovering round on ready” (6). In many ways that is the way Sarah and all women of her class are expected to behave: to be quiet and subservient, hovering in the background until summoned by the men. Handful realizes that Sarah is as trapped as she is: “She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not by the law. . . . I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round’” (200 – 201).
Handful and Sarah are also similar in their character traits. Sarah describes her sister as having “a lively intellect and [showing] signs of being quite fearless” (88), but the same description could be given to both her and Handful. Perhaps the trait that most stands out is their determination. Handful risks severe punishment by engaging in acts of rebellion. When faced with such punishment, she responds by telling her “backside to brace up” (7). For Handful, blackbird wings, which she adopts from her mother’s stories and incorporates into her quilts, serve as a symbol for her desire for freedom. Her mantra becomes “’We gonna leave here or die trying’” (337). Sarah is equally defiant, rebelling against her parents and society even in the face of widespread approbation. Her speech impediment, a fitting symbol of her being silenced, does not stop her from expressing her beliefs: “I told myself the affliction in my voice wouldn’t stop me, it would compel me. It would make me strong, for I would have to be strong” (20). Sarah uses a sterling button, which she begins to wear prominently, to remind her of all her hopes and dreams. Her mantra is “If you must err, do so on the side of audacity” (8).
Of the two stories, it is Handful’s that is stronger, and it is for perhaps this reason that she has the first and last chapters. Perhaps Sarah’s story is less compelling because she is not usually in physical danger whereas Handful’s life is in imminent danger several times. Sarah says that, “Being an abolitionist could get you attacked right on the streets – heckled, flogged, stoned, killed” (305 – 306), but her safety doesn’t seem to be seriously threatened. She faces expulsion from a church and a city, and has a lot to lose in terms of social status, but she has money. At one point, Sarah realizes that her broken heart after a rejection is “merely unfortunate” when compared to a slave’s being apprehended by guards, a truly “tragic” event (141). That is perhaps the situation throughout; Sarah’s situation is much less dire than Handful’s. Handful endures loss and sorrow on several levels whereas Sarah experiences, according to the flyleaf, “crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism.” Of course, I do not mean to dismiss emotional suffering or to diminish what Sarah Grimké accomplished; I can only admire what she achieved and stand in awe of her courage in standing up to men: “’Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks” (334).
Despite her stronger story, it is not Handful who is the most memorable character but Charlotte, Handful’s mother. Handful learns to be shrewd, tough, and defiant from her mother whose understanding of the world “came from living on the scarce side of mercy” (3). It is Charlotte who instills the desire for freedom in her daughter by telling her that her shoulder blades are the remnants of wings which will one day grow back. Sarah recognizes Charlotte’s keen intellect: “Of all the slaves Father owned, she struck me as the most intelligent, and perhaps the most dangerous” (30). She is dangerous because she instills a pride in her daughter, telling her, “’I is a ‘markable woman, and you is a ‘markable girl, and we ain’t never gon bow and scrape’” (76) and “’Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth’” (112). Charlotte wants to be remembered not as a slave but as someone who belonged “’to nobody but herself’” (304).
The use of two women from totally different backgrounds emphasizes that the lives of both slaves and wealthy white women were affected by “the peculiar institution” (144). Both the story based on a real person and that based on a fictional character can remind us that we all need to take wing.