As I started to read this book the first things to strike me were the similarities to Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway. The main one, initially, is the quilting angle but runaway slaves and quakers soon make an appearance. In this story, however, you don’t feel that this heroine’s tale is largely about which man she should choose (along with his lifestyle and principles) because in the end neither Sarah nor Handful (the two narrators) settle with a man. Although both have romantic involvements they both find their own place in the world as women rather than as wives or daughters.
I didn’t feel that this was done heavy-handedly but I admired the way that Sarah, in particular, was able to turn down a good, loving and principled man because he would have required her to give up her personal ambitions. Since the book is set in Charleston in the first half of the 19th century we should remember that neither a slave or her female owner had many rights at all. At one point Handful points out to Sarah, her owner, that while as a slave her body is not free her mind is her own. She also reminds Sarah that although she may enjoy physical freedom she is, paradoxically, almost enslaved mentally. Sarah’s struggle is is to gain her own freedom of the mind and it is hard-fought.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole book is the afterword where we discover that Sarah and Nina Grimké were real women who actively campaigned for the equality of both slaves and women. I had never even considered that abolishionists didn’t necessarily believe in equal rights. I am very glad that I have been able to read this beautifully written book about some remarkable women. Recent films, such as Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, have highlighted the realities of slavery but the voices of women slaves are less commonly heard.