This was a compelling piece of historical fiction from a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. I didn’t realize till near the end of the novel that the main character, Sarah Grimke, was a real person — I assumed she was a fictional character, which I think is a compliment to the author because it means that the character was vivid and fully developed, rather than a biographical sketch of a historical figure. I entered completely into Sarah’s mind and world as she grew up the privileged daughter of a white slave-owning family in Charlestone, South Carolina in the early 1800s. Only much later, as the story unfolded, did I realize that Sarah and her younger sister Angelina were not just fictional characters rubbing shoulders with real-life abolitionists, but were in fact real woman who were outspoken not just in the abolition movement but in the burgeoning women’s rights movement in 19th century America.
The other main character in the novel, the slave girl Hetty who is given to Sarah as an eleventh birthday present, is not a historical character (though it is a matter of record that young Sarah Grimke did have a slave girl by that name). This is understandable, as the lives of slave women were barely documented and would not have made a mark on the historical record the way the Grimke women did. However, the fictional Hetty also gets involved with real historical characters, including the would-be leader of a slave uprising, and her experiences in the novel are a potent reminder that African-American slaves were not passive victims, waiting around for white abolitionists to rescue them from bondage. This is one of the best historical novels I’ve read about the era of slavery and abolition in the U.S., and I recommend it highly.