Set in early 19th century Charleston, S.C., the story is based in part on the historical woman Sarah Grimké, the daughter of a plantation owner, a Supreme Court judge. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given her very own slave, or handmaid, Hettie, nicknamed Handful by her mother. Sarah is grieved from the beginning about this forced relationship that so demeans her young friend. Headstrong and intelligent, though suffering from a disabling speech impediment, Sarah finds herself resisting the old ways of her cruel mother, her confusing father and the society that perpetuates the mistreatment of blacks and the demeaning of women.
Sarah hungers for knowledge and for books. She reads everything she can from her father’s extensive library. Her father seems to take great pride in her quick mind. At least she thinks he does. When he finds that Sarah has been teaching Handful to read and write, all her dreams of one day becoming a lawyer are dashed. He bans Sarah forever from reading anything more from his collection, and he cruelly puts her in her place. Of course, her lot could never include becoming a lawyer. It just wasn’t done. Her humiliation is magnified as she watches her friend and handmaid beaten, all because of her actions.
What Sarah does with her broken dream is truly astounding. She allows her disappointments and compassion to enlarge her dream, becomes an outspoken abolitionist and walks bravely into her destiny on an often lonely road. Written in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Sarah and Handful, and spanning more than 30 years, the story of these women, the meaning of freedom, dignity, family love and storytelling are deftly woven throughout this fine novel.
Like the story quilt that Handful’s mama works on in secret, using forbidden materials and her own great courage, this is a story that is still being written. Oprah has done it again. I loved her choice.
Susan Richmond owns Inklings Bookshop in Yakima, WA and writes the Thinklings column for this blog. She and other Inklings staffers review books in The Yakima Herald each week.