Compelling narrative

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Photo: Roland Scarpa
Photo: Roland Scarpa

Sarah Moore Grimké. The very name evokes awe, as she was among the first ones to develop the argument for women’s equality when they were treated as human chattel. She, of course, is a legend in the struggle to get the United States rid of slavery. She also militated against the several ‘unchristian’ ways of the church. Her espousal of the cause of African- Americans makes this awesome little novel attain an engaging feel.

To locate Sue Monk Kidd’s work on this remarkable figure, it is important to comprehend a terribly unequal and harsh social set-up in which Sarah gave suffrage workers such as Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott several arguments and ideas that they would need to help end slavery and begin the women’s suffrage movement.

Sarah was a woman of several parts. She was not only an abolitionist but also a feminist, as she challenged the church that touted its inclusiveness then denied her. It was through her abolitionist pursuits that she became more sensitive to the rights that women were denied. She opposed being subject to men so much to the point that she refused to marry. Both Sarah and her sister Angelina became very involved in the anti-slavery movement, they both published volumes of literature and letters on the topic. When they became well known, they began lecturing around the country on the issue. At the time women did not speak in public, this was another way that Sarah was viewed as a feminist ground breaker. Sarah openly challenged women’s domestic roles, and she believed that in order for women to be able to challenge slavery, they also needed to be equal.

Once you settle down to read the book, you realise that it is never easy to be authentic in tracing real-time historical figures: writing in the voice of someone from a different race and wildly different experience is a challenge strewn with pitfalls. And yet Sue Monk Kidd, the white Southern author of such bestsellers as The Secret Life of Bees, has managed to avoid both condescension and cliché, creating an unforgettable character in the slave Handful, the emotional core of her utterly riveting third novel. Kidd went to South Carolina to research the thorny topic of race relations. This is largely a first-person narrative of Sarah Grimké, the white daughter of a plantation owner, and the African- American Handful — aka Hetty — who, at the age of 10, is given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present.

The two narrators are emotionally entwined early on. Despite her family’s background, Sarah, an odd bookish girl, is appalled by the idea of owning people. When she finds herself unable to free Handful, she instead teaches her to read, which is illegal and for which they are both punished. Handful, meanwhile, learns not only how to sew but also to understand her own history from her tough and defiant mother, who pieces pivotal life events into a ‘story quilt.’

The journeys these women make are not equal. Sarah, who is based on a historical figure, rejects her heritage to become an abolitionist and an early feminist, as Kidd’s model did. But it is Handful who has the more dramatic struggle, and Kidd acknowledges this by giving her the opening and closing narratives, each referencing the flying blackbirds that, in her mother’s quilt, signify freedom. Conversational and colloquial, with occasional dips into nonstandard grammar, these passages establish Handful’s strength as well as her distinctive voice.

Feisty from the start, Handful acts out in small ways, knowing that she will be punished. “I told my backside to brace up.” Sarah’s voice is less colourful. When she refuses a suitor, for example, she understates her pain: “I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all.” This charmingly ambiguous determination surfaces again when she rejects the abolitionist leaders’ command to give up her fight for women’s equality. “Now, sirs,” she says, paraphrasing the real Grimké, “kindly take your feet off our necks.”

Key to both women’s growth is their friendship. However, once again, Handful’s journey is by far the tougher. When, toward the novel’s conclusion, Kidd recalls a moment of girlhood closeness with Sarah, she has trouble defining the Sarah-Handful interface. Their relationship is complicated, but using the language of a seamstress, Kidd makes it sound real.

Sarah shows a lot of insight into the life of the slaves. Hearing them sing, she thinks to herself: “their gaiety wasn’t contentment, but survival.” She is right, of course, but it is only after a long journey that she truly relates to her family’s human chattel on a personal level.

This is of course a fictionalized history of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), in which Kidd has fleshed out loads of research relating to facts, figures, dates, letters, and articles. And she has converted all that into a plausible and elegantly rendered fictional first person account of Sarah’s life. But though Hetty was real, her story here is almost entirely fictionalised, but with a touch of supreme brilliance.

The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd Tinder Press 371 pp; Rs 399
The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Tinder Press
371 pp; Rs 399

Hetty’s character seems truly inspired. She maintains a spirited independence in her internal life. She survives cruelty and servitude by creating rituals that she invests with meaning and power. She both benefits and is injured by her complicated relationship with Sarah, who can neither free nor protect her when she truly needs it. And yet, for many years, it almost seems as if Hetty is more psychologically free than Sarah, despite the reality of being a slave.

A defining moment in the book comes with the discovery that Sarah has taught Hetty to read — a criminal offense in South Carolina. Punishment is cruel for both girls; Sarah is banned from her most cherished things in the world — her father’s library and his books — while Hetty is just mercilessly whipped.

Hetty grows to be the best seamstress in Charleston, and in the final reckoning, it is this talent that offers her some kind of freedom: inside her, she always has hope. She believes in her ability to be free, manages to create an internal life of ideas and possibility, and is able to carve out a modicum of independence within the context of her life.

As far as Sarah is concerned, her family ridicules her hope to study law, labeling it unseemly because she is a woman. She is shattered and cowed by their conviction that being a woman means she has no right to ambition. Overcoming that obstacle is a long, painful journey dotted by pauses and self-doubt; she prepares to meet prejudice toward her kind, even as she creates a national following for her abolitionist crusade. Sarah may read, think, or speak — as long as she doesn’t make any men uncomfortable by doing so.

The novel has in the country of its origin been hailed as a textured masterpiece, and so it indeed is as it powerfully enters the reader’s conscience and also consciousness. What does it mean to be a sister, a friend, a woman, an outcast, a slave? How does one use given talents for individual satisfaction and growth? How does one give voice to self in order to empower our voice?

Kidd has been rightly hailed as an exquisite and masterful writer, who explores difficult topics and complex ideas unflinchingly. This book in the end is a must for those who have never heard of the Grimkés before. Readers will surely be interested in knowing more about them, and thank Kidd in all earnestness for allowing them to make their acquaintance.

One may have a few disagreements with the narrative, but considering the enormity of Kidd’work, these will be rather minor. The book has a superb sense of timing whose plot points succeeds because of its characters. Kidd has given both Sarah and Hetty distinctive voices. With them, they learn to speak to each other, and, ultimately, to the reader.

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