The Little Paris Bookshop: Book Review

Posted January 30, 2018 by Faye
Categories: Book Review, Books, Literature

Tags: , ,

The little Paris bookshop by Nina George (New York: Crown, 2016) is a love story with many unexpected twists and turns. The main character is Jean Perdu, the solitary, dour owner of a bookshop, the Literary Apothecary, on a barge moored on the Seine. Because Perdu considers books medicine and himself the pharmacist, he feels morally bound to sell a book only if he intuits that it is the right book at the right time for the customer. He’s usually correct, even though the customer may rail against his presumptuousness.

Perdu’s lover, Manon, left him twenty years ago without explanation and with only a letter that he refuses to open. Finally, when Catherine, a new tenant across the hall, finds the letter in the drawer of a desk Perdu has given her, she persuades him to open it. Upon reading it, he is mortified to learn that Manon returned to her family in the South because she was dying of cancer. In the letter, she also asks him to come to her. Devastated with shame and guilt, he impulsively launches the Literary Apothecary, and sets off down the Seine, joined by Max Jordan, an intense young writer with writer’s block. Interspersed with their story is Manon’s diary, which is how we get to know her side.

There’s comedy and pathos as Perdu and Max Jordan travel through the rivers of France, picking up more travelers along the way. It’s also a travelogue with vivid descriptions of the geography, flora and fauna they see as they make their way south. Perdu’s wry commentaries on national differences among river travelers add to the fun. The Swedes, he observes, “cruise down the river like they invented it,” while the English “act like they are the only ones who belong here and should be applauded by everyone else.”   He recommends one “Follow the Dutch. They have a nose for a free lunch.”

It would not be French without food, hence a bartender with the flair for cooking joins the motley crew. He too has a twenty-year longing for a lost lover. George adds an appendix with recipes from Provence. Speckled throughout are numerous literary references that are listed at the end as “Jean Perdu’s Emergency Literary Pharmacy.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this odyssey down the Seine with its various colorful characters and their secrets and longings for love. A friend of mine described it as having a Forrest Gump quality, but I prefer odyssey, as all the characters are searching for home and redemption in one way or another. As in Shakespearean comedy, you feel all will end well, but in surprising ways.

A Remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Posted January 16, 2018 by Faye
Categories: Augusta, Georgia, Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, JR, Social Justice, Uncategorized


This week, as the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15, my thoughts turn back to March 24, 1968, just nine days before he was assassinated on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee, at 39 years of age. Augusta Attorney John Watkins, in King’s last visit to Augusta, wrote about the visit that he arranged in spite of almost overwhelming resistance from the acknowledged black leadership of Augusta.

Augusta, Georgia, was similar to many other Southern cities at the time and, as Watkins noted, was “also known as a city in love with the Confederacy and its cause. This love is symbolized by the erection of a 60-70 feet tall marble memorial in the heart of the city of Augusta on Broad Street, atop of which are lifelike statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, A.P. Hill and A.H. Johnson. A bridge across the Savannah River that connects South Carolina with Augusta is named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy.”

 The climate of racism in Augusta was also inflamed by people like attorney Roy Harris who published a hate-filled newspaper called The Augusta Courier. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “Harris used The Augusta Courier, a tabloid newspaper he founded in 1946 and edited from 1947 to 1974, to spread his segregationist message. Headlines appeared in bright red ink, and most articles focused on the inferiority of African Americans, the evils of integration, and the need to defeat liberals.”

In spite of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ordered an end to the practice of segregated schools, public schools in Georgia remained defiantly segregated in 1968. Though the 1964 Civil Rights Act had, among other things, banned discrimination in public accommodations, signs designating “White” and “Colored” remained in public and private places of business.

My personal history with Augusta dated back to 1961 when I, along with Black students from Paine College and White students from other Georgia colleges participated in a sit-in at Greene’s lunch counter on Broad Street, an event that resulted in a Paine College student being stabbed, barely surviving. A couple of years later after college, I found myself back in Augusta working while my husband – who had also been one of the sit-in participants – attended medical school.

In March of 1968, Dr. King asked Watkins to find a venue where he could speak in Augusta on behalf of his Poor People’s Campaign and the proposed Poor People’s’ March on Washington.  One might think this would be a no-brainer. What Black community wouldn’t be honored to host this revered civil rights leader and icon? But in the preceding year, Dr. King had dismayed many in the civil rights movement by becoming an outspoken opponent of the  Vietnam War. As anti-war protests around the country grew, many civil rights activists felt his opposition to the war diluted the movement’s efforts to end poverty and racial discrimination. Some accused him of being anti-patriotic.

In his 1967 book The trumpet of conscience, King explained how directly the end of the war and the struggle for economic advancement of the poor were linked (in addition to saving thousands of lives, many of them Black, who were fighting in the war):

“Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I had several reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and  almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demoniacal destructive suction tube. And so I was increasingly compelled to see the war not only as a moral outrage but also as an enemy of the poor, and to attack it as such.”

Tabernacle Baptist, the Black church that had been a gathering place for many mass meetings for civil rights activism in Augusta, turned Watkins down when he asked that Dr. King be allowed to speak there. Other large churches as well as the leadership of Paine College also refused to host King’s visit. Finally, only a couple of days before he was due to arrive, Reverend Vernon, the pastor of Beulah Grove Baptist, a smaller church that seated only 500-600 people, agreed to allow Dr. King to speak there

Though the local papers did not publicize King’s visit, word spread quickly by word of mouth and, according to Watkins, “People started gathering at the church early Saturday morning and continued to arrive up to and after 2:30 p.m. The church filled to capacity. Those who could not get into the church stood in the yard, all along Poplar and McCauley Streets…Several white persons in Augusta voiced their intentions to attend, and did so with their children, especially Fay[sic] Hudson [Hudson being my married name at the time], a social worker and her children…”

My husband Cecil Hudson and I arrived very early that Saturday morning with our four-year-old son Marc, thus we were able to find a seat inside. By three o’clock, an announcement was made that Dr. King’s plane had been delayed, but that he should arrive by 5. The hot and humid air inside the crowded, unairconditioned church was stifling, but everyone calmly settled in. Then, to no one’s surprise, a woman with a strong contralto voice began to sing. Quickly everyone joined in, and the voices of hundreds joyfully filled the church as we patiently waited. At 5, another delay was announced with the suggestion that people go home for dinner and return by 7. I wasn’t about to give up my seat so my son Marc and I remained while Cecil left to go home to relieve our baby sitter who was with our two-year-old daughter Leslie. Some people had come prepared with food which they shared with others.

About 7, an excited buzz spread through the crowd. He had arrived. Dr. King with his two young sons Dexter and Martin, along with Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. Vernon, John Watkins and a few other ministers were quickly seated at the dais. After a few words of welcome from Rev. Vernon and a much too long introduction (according to Watkins) by Rev. Abernathy, Dr. King finally arose to speak:

“I want to apologize for being so late. But you know sometimes if you just wait, good things will come to you.” He did not elaborate, but in his book King’s last visit to Augusta, Watkins explained that King had just received word that the Ford Foundation would donate $250,000 to the Poor People’s March, the march that sadly never took place due to Dr. King’s assassination. King continued: ” I know you have made a tremendous sacrifice in arranging this affair, and I want to thank you for all that you have done in bringing us here on our last stop, in our drive to finance the Poor People’s Campaign on Washington to be held later next month…

“This country has lost its sense of direction, its sense of purpose and it needs to rearrange it[sic] priorities. For we cannot fight an immoral war in Vietnam where many of our young men are dying and at the same time finance the war on poverty to help our people in this country – white and black people living in what seem like hopeless conditions. And I would be remiss if I did not try to do something about it.

“Let them think of me as they like. As long as breath is in this body, I am going to do whatever I can to eliminate these conditions so when our boys come home, we can truly help the poor and uneducated. This is what the Poor People’s March is all about, and we ask for your support in this noble crusade. Can I count on you to help me?”

King’s speech was short. He was visibly tired. Who could have imagined that in nine days he would be shot dead as he stood on the steps on the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on his way to speak to striking sanitation workers?

As I reflect this week on Dr. King’s life and what it has meant to me, I think of the twenty-somethings of 2018 who face so many of the same issues faced in the 1960s: racism, poverty, discrimination, lack of equal educational and economic opportunities, social and political justice, the threat of nuclear war. Those were the cards we were dealt, and we did the best we could with them. I wish we could have done better so life for this generation would be easier, but now it’s up to them to find their own solutions. Dr. King was the moral North Star of my generation, and while not all of the same strategies and tactics may work today, as a moral compass, he set a very high bar.

In his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King said:

“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.

“I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘is-ness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘ought-ness- that forever confronts him.

“I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.

“I believe that even amid today’s mortar burst and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.

“I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

“I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“I still believe that we shall overcome.”

Each generation passes the torch to the next to carry it a little bit further. Today’s generation was born into a world that is different from mine; yet so much remains the same: racism, discrimination, injustice, poverty, environmental damage, the threat of nuclear war. In addition, on this January 15, 2018, we cannot help but feel stressed and beleaguered, even fearful, because we have a racist, narcissistic, incompetent president sitting in the oval office. He is not the first and perhaps not the last of this ilk, though I surely hope so. In time, history will assign him his due place among the worst and lowest of all who have served in that office. In former similar situations, we have carried on and pushed through. Michelle Obama’s line, “When they go low, we go high” is one of the most memorable and uplifting that I have ever heard. From a personal perspective of over three quarters of a century, I too have an audacious faith in the future of humankind, and in the intelligence and energy of young people to lead the way.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Fifty years from now, my grandchildren will be roughly my present age. I wonder how they will look back and assess their work and progress to make the world a better place. I wonder what their challenges will be as they face their own aging and retirement years. I wonder how Martin Luther King Day in 2065 will be celebrated. I wonder what kind of world their grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren, will be facing. Whatever it is, I find comfort in believing as King did that they too shall overcome. This hope – this audacious hope – is a large part of what the life of Dr. King means to me. I was so fortunate to have been able to see and hear him speak twice in my lifetime, first in his Atlanta church in the early ’60s, then for the last time March 24, 1968. But long after those who had living contact with him have died, his words will live on. No one experienced darker and more difficult times than he; yet he was able to maintain hope and faith that we can be better than the worst in us. The night before he died, as he spoke to an audience in Memphis, he said,

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Like Native Americans who care for the earth forward to seven generations and Talmudic sages 2,000 years ago who are reputed to have said, “You are not required to finish your work; yet, neither are you permitted to desist from it,” King took the long view that, in the end, we shall overcome. For well over half-a-century, I have found inspiration and hope from his life and words. Had he lived, he would be 89 years old today. Happy birthday, Dr. King, and thank you for all you gave us in those brief 39 years and continue to give us now and for generations to come.

 

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, 2011: Book Review

Posted February 6, 2015 by Faye
Categories: Books, Justice System Reform Movement, Opinion, Politics, Racism, Social Justice

Tags: , ,

Smith College graduate Piper Kerman longed for adventure – “an outrageous experience” – from her white, middle-class Bostonian upbringing, but money laundering for a drug ring as a favor to her lesbian lover gave her more than she had bargained for – a 15-month sentence in the federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Her memoir is the story of the daily lives and coping mechanisms that she and other incarcerated women developed to maintain their humanity and self-respect in a system that seems to be designed to try to destroy it.

For those who’ve seen the Netflix series, you’ll find fewer expletives and explosive dramas in the book, but more depth. The colorful characters are all there without the TV hype.

Kerman fully acknowledges her privilege as a white, educated woman with resources that the majority of the women in prison do not have. Most inmates do not have private legal counsel and are at the mercy of overworked and/or indifferent public defenders for representation. It’s impossible to ignore too that the women of color at Danbury often have substantially longer sentences for the same kind of crime as hers.

In spite of the subject matter, this is not a dark book. There’s humor, creativity and celebration in Kerman’s descriptions of prison life and her fellow inmates, quirks and all. In spite of their conditions and the often absurd and arbitrary rules, there’s friendship, generosity and empathy that debunks the usual stereotypes of danger and violence.

Danbury is a minimum security prison housing mostly nonviolent offenders, many of whom are serving sentences for low-level drug-related crimes.

“In 1980, there were approximately 500,000 people in prison in the United States. Today there are 2.3 million, and, according to the 2008 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, a total of over 7 million people are on parole or probation or locked up. A great number of these people have committed nonviolent offenses, and this dramatic change is due to laws and sentencing guidelines related to the ‘war on drugs,’ which has not reduced rates of drug addiction or abuse in this country. Overincarceration in America destabilizes families and communities, making life outside the mainstream more likely by limiting opportunities for change. We have a racially biased justice system that overpunishes, fails to rehabilitate, and doesn’t make us safer.”

While in prison Piper is sustained by the friends she makes inside these walls as well as her fiance, Larry, and family on the outside. Not so for many of the others. Kerman will go home to loved ones and a ready made job. For anyone without resources and family support, trying to find a job, a place to live and the basic necessities of life can be much more frightening than being in prison. Upon release, a person is given a “gratuity” of $28.30 with which to start a new life. Public assistance such as food stamps, public housing, Section 8 housing vouchers, student loans, and welfare as well as voting rights in most states are some of the obstacles facing felons when they leave prison.

Kerman’s memoir is a tale of self-transformation too as she forms deep connections with women from every walk of life and comes to accept full responsibility for what she calls the stupidest thing she ever did.

“The women I met in Danbury helped me to confront the things I had done wrong, as well as the wrong things I had done,” she said. In an interview appended to the paperback edition, she adds, “…the unfortunate truth of being human is that we all have moments of indifference to other people’s suffering. To me, that’s the central thing that allows crime to happen: indifference to other people’s suffering…So I thought it was really important, especially in those early chapters, to both help the reader maybe understand how one makes really bad decisions, but also to take responsibility. And I hope that it’s really clear that I do take responsibility for my actions.”

Personally, I think she has fully redeemed herself for her crime by having had the courage to write this very personally revealing memoir that casts light on our broken system of excessive incarceration of nonviolent offenders and to continue to work to reform it. An appendix of justice reform resources is included.

Book Review: The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit by Shirley MacLaine

Posted October 12, 2014 by Faye
Categories: Book Review, Spirituality, Travel

Tags: , , , ,

Pilgrims have been drawn to the 500-mile Santiago de Compostela Camino across northern Spain for many centuries in search of spiritual and psychological growth. After being instructed by an anonymous person via two letters to make the walk, MacLaine, in her sixties, decides to heed the call. This book is the recounting of both the physical and spiritual journey she made.

MacLaine is well-known as a spiritual seeker through her other books and public speeches. I bought the book primarily out of curiosity about the Camino as a physical feat but also out of interest in MacLaine’s spiritual experience of it. I was prepared to do more than a few eye roles at her descriptions of past life encounters. Even she admits that the visions and experiences she had made her feel like rolling her own eyes. There are pilgrims along the way she recognizes as individuals she’s known in other incarnations. There are spiritual guides such as John the Scot and her deceased parents who accompany her, helping her find her way when she gets lost. (In spite of the many fellow pilgrims and signage, she manages to lose the path several times as she is distracted by her visions.) Her celebrity is recognized almost immediately, and soon the press is hot on her trail, hounding her mercilessly, even following her into the shower with cameras.

MacLaine’s descriptions of the physical hardships are vivid enough to discourage me at least from seriously considering it. Sleeping in the rat-invested shelters, called refugios, with smelly, snoring fellow pilgrims, cold water showers, burst blisters that she sews up, lack of privacy for personal needs, greasy soups, and attack dogs – none of this strikes me as conducive to spiritual contemplation. But MacLaine has experience after experience with extraterrestrials, life in Lemuria and Atlantis and even her own birth as an androgenous self before the genders were separated . She also has real-life encounters with colorful individuals with whom she travels from time to time. She is frequently struck by the kindness of villagers along the way who feed and care for the pilgrims out of respect for the quests they are on.

The Camino was the site of many bloody battles and violence during the Middle Ages between Christians and Moors, the latter who were eventually pushed out of Spain. “Of real interest to me,” MacLaine writes, “was the role of the Arab-Moorish invaders along the Camino in relation to the Christian world. I was struck by how similar were our conflicts today. To the Arab, the Christian was an infidel and a partner of Satan. To the Christian, the Arab was a heathen and ruled by the sword. Nothing much has changed.”

As I read this book, I was reminded of Carlos Castanada’s shamanic journeys which he wrote about in The Teachings of Don Juan and other books. Many non-Western cultures honor shamans, vision quests and the wisdom they bring back from their journeys. Indeed, all religions have mystical traditions of direct personal encounters with the Divinity. I also was reminded of the active imagination techniques developed by Carl G. Jung for interacting with dream figures as a means of accessing the unconscious self.

Throughout human history and in myriad ways, humans have used symbols to describe and explain experiences that go beyond the so-called rational mind.This book is the tale of MacLaine’s encounters with the mystical, the transpersonal or whatever you want to call it and the insights she gained from them. She herself acknowledges the mystery. “I slept in that state of confusion. John the Scot did not come again. I tossed and turned, not knowing what was a dream, a vision, or what was real. Yet somehow I knew I was the creator of all these thoughts and feelings. Yes, I thought, had I created Lemuria, the fall from grace, original sin, and my separation from the Divine? Was that the message? Did we each create everything that happens to us and what we think happened to us?”

She ends with “We each create it all. And again, the absence of evidence does not mean the evidence of absence.

“Imagine that.”

I’m not going to follow MacLaine on the Camino, but I am grateful to her for sharing her experiences, both terrestial and extra-terrestrial. She raises questions that are common to all of us who think deeply about the meaning of life for ourselves and our fellow travelers on the planet. And, she might add, beyond.

The Avion My Uncle Flew by Cyrus Fisher: Book Review

Posted August 15, 2014 by Faye
Categories: Book Review, Culture, Literature

Tags: ,

What a delightful way to learn French! To his dismay, 13-year-old John is sent to the small French village of St. Chamant for the summer with his French uncle, his mother’s brother, while his parents are in England. The year is 1946. John, or Jean as he learns he is now to be known, understands no French and has no interest in learning at first, but slowly, almost effortlessly, he begins to pick it up, especially when he makes friends with twins about his age. While his uncle works on building a glider that will hopefully resolve his financial woes, John becomes obsessed with finding a suspected Nazi soldier that he suspects is hiding out in the nearby mountains.

This is a YA-level mystery that kept me completely engaged and charmed while adding quite a bit to my limited French vocabulary. The French is very cleverly woven into the story so that you learn right along with John as he and his friends get in over their heads in a dangerous adventure. This book should be required reading for every beginning student of French for encouragement as well as language learning. It’s delightfully entertaining, with a little history of post-WW II France thrown in.

In the author’s postscript, we learn that he is the grandson of a French immigrant who came to the US after The Great Wine Blight of 1860. The author whose real name was Darwin L. Teilhet (1904-1964) actually did return to St Chamant, his ancestral home, when he was 21 to build a glider, an event that was declared a legal holiday by the town’s mayor.

The Warmth of Other Suns: Book Review

Posted June 22, 2014 by Faye
Categories: Book Review, Literature, Racism, Social Justice


Wilkerson’s book should be required reading in every American history class! Spanning the period between 1910 and 1970, the author traces the migration of southern blacks out of the Jim Crow segregated southern states where conditions were as brutal and impoverished as they had been under slavery. The system of sharecropping assured the white farmers of a reliable source of black laborers whose lives they controlled legally, economically, and by force when necessary.Lynchings and many forms of violence were not uncommon.

The descriptions the violence perpetrated against blacks even suspected of stepping “out of their place” are graphic, horrifying and historically well-documented. First as a trickle, then as a stream that became a river, individuals and families began to leave the South, heading for the large cities of the North, Midwest and West for the promise of freedom and a better life. Even the literal leaving took unimaginable courage. Whites took notice of these departures which meant the loss of cheap labor and prevented them from going if they could. Those leaving often did so under cover of darkness, telling no one.

The Warmth of Other Suns tells the story of The Great Migration through the personal stories of primarily three individuals and their families: Ida Mae Gladney who left Mississippi with her husband George and children in 1937 for Chicago; George Starling who left Florida in 1945 under threat of death for New York; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a Louisianian and medical doctor, who settled in Los Angeles.They were only a few of the hundreds of persons interviewed by the author whose own mother had been part of the migration. “From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who every longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.”

Once out of the South, the hardships did not end. Wilkerson follows them through years of adjustment to urban life, racism, discrimination in employment and housing, competition with other immigrants, and generational problems with children faced with the difficulties and temptations of the big city.

Some scholars blame the participants of the Great Migration for the ills of the northern urban cities. Wilkerson quotes statistics that show that black southerners who went north were generally better educated than those who stayed, and that the post World War II migrants “were equal or slightly higher than the resident  white population”  in education. (p. 262) Family stability was higher among the in-migrants as was regular employment.

This is a big book in every sense of the word. In spite of the struggles and hardships, Ida Mae, George and Robert never regretted their decisions to leave. As fascinating and informative is the telling of the major historical events of these sixty years, it’s the personal stories of the people who never thought of themselves as part of a “movement” that captivates. Because they had the courage to leave the South with no more than what they could carry, they changed the course of American history.

 

The Invention of Wings: Book Review

Posted March 13, 2014 by Faye
Categories: Book Review, Books, Literature, Opinion, Racism, Social Justice


The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 2014)  is an incredible story about the lives of the slaves in a Charleston, SC, family and the two white sisters in the same family who became abolitionists. The chapters alternate between the voice of Sarah Grimke, an actual historical figure, and the fictional slave, Handful. Only one year apart in age, Handful is “given” to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Outspoken in her opposition to slavery, to the chagrin of her family, she tries to resist this “gift,” to no avail. In spite of the great inequity the institution of slavery imposes on them, they develop a close friendship that follows them into adulthood. Sarah’s longing for a life of significance denied her by her gender mirrors Handful’s longing for freedom. A voracious reader, Sarah breaks one of the cardinal laws and teaches Handful to read. When they are found out, Handful is beaten, and Sarah is forbidden access to her father’s library.

All of the horrors of slavery are vividly described through the eyes of these two characters: random acts of harsh punishments, separation of parents and children, restriction of movement, complete control over the lives of the slaves, retribution by lynching for attempted revolt, etc. Also described are resistance efforts and cunning ways to create whatever limited independence that is possible.

The youngest child of the Grimke family, Angelina who is also Sarah’s godchild, becomes as outspoken as Sarah against slavery and, if anything, more rebellious. Eventually Sarah, followed by Angelina a few years later, decides she can no longer abide living in the South and goes north. The sisters connect with the abolitionist movement and travel widely as spokespersons, becoming both famous and infamous in their opposition to slavery, racism (which exists even among some abolitionist Quakers), and gender discrimination. Abolitionist leaders,including William Lloyd Garrison, are happy to have the sisters speak to women but initially, at least, oppose their speaking to mixed-gender groups. The men especially oppose their combining anti-slavery and women’s issues in their speeches. True to their principles, the Grimke sisters refuse to allow men to restrict their right to speak freely. Sarah responds, “Do what you have to do, censure us, withdraw your support, we’ll press on anyway. Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks.”

This book is rich with unforgettable characters of both races who come alive in all their humanity and flaws. Sarah’s life-long wish for a meaningful life is fulfilled in ways she could have never dreamed. These stories – part history, part fiction – are alive with detail, pathos, humor and intrigue. You will be enthralled right to the last page!


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