Sarah Grimké was an actual early abolitionist and feminist whose upbringing in a slaveholding Southern family made her voice particularly controversial. Kidd re-imagines Sarah’s life in tandem with that of a slave in the Grimké household. In 1803, 11-year-old Sarah receives a slave as her birthday present from her wealthy Charleston parents. Called Hetty by the whites, Handful is just what her name implies–sharp tongued and spirited. Precocious Sarah is horrified at the idea of owning a slave but is given no choice by her mother, a conventional Southern woman of her time who is not evil but accepts slavery (and the dehumanizing cruelties that go along with it) as a God-given right. Soon, Sarah and Handful have established a bond built on affection and guilt. Sarah breaks the law by secretly teaching Handful to read and write. When they are caught, Handful receives a lashing, while Sarah is banned from her father’s library and all the books therein, her dream of becoming a lawyer dashed. As Sarah and Handful mature, their lives take separate courses. While Handful is physically imprisoned, she maintains her independent spirit, while Sarah has difficulty living her abstract values in her actual life. Eventually, she escapes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker, until the Quakers prove too conservative. As Sarah’s activism gives her new freedom, Handful’s life only becomes harder in the Grimké household. Through her mother, Handful gets to know Denmark Vesey, who dies as a martyr after attempting to organize a slave uprising. Sarah visits less and less often, but the bond between the two women continues until it is tested one last time. Kidd’s portrait of white slave-owning Southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated, while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.
I was afraid this book was going to be a Fault in Our Stars wannabe, but I was pleasantly surprised. Be warned that Richie, the narrator, is a dying teen who doesn’t mind talking about his urges and who uses very raunchy language to do so. His voice is utterly appropriate for a teen in his predicament, but not everyone will appreciate his smart mouth and rebellious spirit.
If you decide to give SUTHY a chance, and you get past Halloween night and don’t want to keep reading, it is probably not the book for you. It may not be for everyone, but I was hooked by the determination of Richie and Sylvie to LIVE, in their own way, by their own rules, while they still can.
P.S. The author wrote this as a short story in 2009 before John Green wrote Fault in Our Stars. In an interview with School Library Journal, she says,” … the real origins of this book go back much farther, to the many times that I stayed with my son in Babies Hospital … in New York City. There, I met all sort of kids—sick, wounded, all hurt in some way. The ones who have always stayed in my mind—and my dreams—are the teenagers, who were both heartbreaking and hilarious. Full of wit and spirit and rebellion, even in the face of devastating illnesses. I’ve never forgotten their voices. That’s really where Richie and Sylvie came from.”
Students, SUTHY contains mature subject matter and coarse language. As always, please adhere to your family’s values when choosing reading materials.