A justifiably distressing book which is nonetheless richly beautiful with a powerful sense of place.
‘An affront to destiny’ is the perfect description of the way in which the two main characters fly in the face of the futures mapped out for them by the society they are born into. Sarah Grimke and Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimke respectively the daughter of a slave owner and the slave ‘gifted’ to her on her eleventh birthday both lack agency by dint of gender and race. Sarah’s destiny in 1800’s Charleston is to be a wife and mother (and eventual slave owner herself),, denied an education and a career in the Law she craves. Hetty is doomed by the civil and legal mores of the Deep South to have no personhood at all. A slave must lack agency by dint of their position, yet under the tutelage of her Mother Charlotte, Hetty retains a sense of self, unbidden by the cruelty of the system she is born into. She jealousy guards the pieces of her mind and spirit she sees as belonging to her Spirit Tree and ultimately to the Mother Country.
Sarah in contrast is so bidden by the society she is born into that her very ability to speak is impaired by a stammer that is ultimately cured only when she develops insight into the prejudice she retains, despite her anti slavery rhetoric and self image as a progressive and junior iconoclast. The iron muzzle that clamps off the song of Sky- Hetty’s sister, has its metaphorical equivalent in her stammer. Sky’s singing is also in the Gullah dialect from the sea islands surrounding the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Full of poeticism and dialectically reminiscent of the ‘home country’, silencing by such cruel means is especially poignant.
The use of song and craft to tell of injustice, love, pain, belief and heritage is explored and drawn beautifully by Sue Monk Kidd from the real life examples of story quilts by Harriet Power now stored for posterity at the National Museum of American History in DC. The tales told are subversive because there is no doubt that had their owners been able to interpret them, severe punishment may have ensued. However when Mary, a member of the Grimke family lays eyes on Charlotte’s completed story quilt she is stunned by shame at the gruesome pictorial images of barbaric punishments endured. Subconsciously wanting to ‘wash her hands’ of all moral responsibility in the manner of a Southern Lady Macbeth, Mary doesn’t see the money hidden in the quilt because she is blinded by shame. Hetty knows that Mary will have the quilt destroyed in order to banish the dissonance such proof of her participation in an inhumane system evokes. If it exists no longer, then neither will her shame.
I already knew of the symbolism of many of the images on them ; that the black triangles represent the wings of Blackbirds and their subsequent metaphorical and actual clipping as African men and women were taken from their home continent and prevented from flying free. The quilt tells Hetty’s Mother true story; it also harbours the money she saves. The quilt becomes emblematic not only of where they have come from but where they hope to go – freedom. The symbolism of the quilt being filled with feathers and the flightlessness of the slaves contrasts beautifully with the quilt as harbour and shelter for their flight money. The truth of Charlotte’s story of capture and enslavement helps protect them from the ugly reality of consequences had the money been found.
The writing is vivid. The salty sea breezes from the nearby port and harbour inculcate us with the same enervation and yearning that we see in the slaves ; the winds that carry upon them this sea scent allow them no respite from the reminder of their own arrival, however long ago. The breeze carries upon it other reminders of home and struggle; spices, the smell of imported foodstuffs and the gamy odour of a human cargo as they disembark from the fetid and cramped holds. The steamy damp Southern Summers and the tension between their stultifying heat and resultant short tempers permeate the novel as do the smells of a humid climate after a rainfall- bosky earth, the rotting foliage and fecundity and life and death….
Hetty’s Mother, late to bed after hours spent quilting underneath the branches of the Spirit Tree (her life force and connection to ancestral lands) brings its scent into their bed ‘the smell of bark and white mushrooms. Crumbs from the Earth all over the mattress’. We are not allowed to forget where Charlotte and her fellow slaves come from unlike the owners who wish to forget. As Charlotte ages and weakens physically, her refusal to give way, to allow domination of her mind and will both drives and bolsters Hetty’s determination to escape to Sarah in the free North. Charlotte sees freedom in death and her Spirit’s return to her ancestral lands. Hetty sees it in this life.
Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina existed and Sarah’s treatise ‘American Slavery As it Is‘ predated ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by some fifteen years. And ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention happened, we find out that the Grimke sisters had already publicly taken up the cudgels on behalf of Female Emancipation and Equal Rights.