Book Reviews: Two Books About Southern Women and Their Slaves Before the Civil War

I recently read two books about the relationships between women and their slaves in the South, before the Civil War… or as it is called here in North Carolina, the War of Northern Aggression or the Wowah Between the States. Both books were good, each in its own way, and quite different from each other.

One book was The Invention of Wings, an Oprah selection and a recommendation from my sister-in-law, when she heard I was reading Yellow Crocus by Lara Ibrahim. I’ll review Yellow Crocus separately.

The Invention of Wings was written by Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees; it is a historical novel about the Grimké sisters of a wealthy slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina. I’d never heard of Sarah and Angelina, who broke from their family to become 19th-century Southern American Quakers, educators and writers who were early advocates of abolitionism and women’s rights. I was immediately taken with the wonderful prose of the author and her insider’s experience of life in Charleston, a city that still retains much of its Civil War era charm and history.

Both Sarah and Angelina, the younger sister whom Sarah raised as her godchild in their family ten children, moved in elite social circles. They were subjected by a harsh and unrelenting mother to all of the social norms of the day, including the established interactions and treatment of their household slaves. The story is voiced by two powerful narrators, Sarah, and fictional character, Hetty Handful, a young girl slave who is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday.
Sarah is strong headed and indulged early on by her father, a judge, allowing her to access his library and debating current issues and the law with her and her brothers. When Sarah expressed a desire to become someone in her own right, a lawyer, her horrified father takes away her books and her mother pushes her into the social season with the end goal of finding her a rich husband. The book details Sarah’s efforts to get away from Charleston and her family and establish her own life, pulling her equally strong-minded sister with her.

Grimke sisters
Handful is a wonderful character with a determined and resilient mother, who teaches her to push the boundaries of her slavery and to find a way to freedom. The author did a fantastic job of researching the life of slaves in Charleston, the cruelties and punishment to which they were subjected, and slave customs.

This is not an easy book to read in parts because of the history, but it reminded me of the true story of the American South in the early 19th century, and made my trip to Charleston and the surrounding plantations much more meaningful. In learning about the Grimké sisters, I added two more names to the list of women to whom we owe our freedoms today. Sarah was the first woman in the US to write a comprehensive feminist manifesto, and Angelina the first woman to speak before a legislative body. They stand alongside Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Mapps Douglass, all of whom find their way into this book.

A five star novel, certainly, and I recommend everyone to read it.



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