Second Daughter: the Story of a Slave Girl, by Mildred Pitts Walter**

seconddaughterstoryofaslavegirlSecond Daughter is historical fiction based on the true story of an enslaved woman that went to court and won her freedom in New England around the time of the American Revolution. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. And it’s just as well, because if I had paid any money at all for this brief but troubled book, I would be deeply unhappy.

First, let’s examine the positive aspects that allowed the second star to happen. Walter has nailed setting, and when Aissa, the girl that serves as our narrator, describes the kitchen of her master’s house, we are there and can see it all. Here she does an excellent job. Other settings are also well told.

Second, the length, just 119 pages, is accessible for young adult readers, many of whom find it difficult, in these technologically advanced times, to focus all the way through a full length novel.

Unfortunately, the problems outweigh the virtues. I have two issues that plant this story on my literary wall of shame. The first is technical, the second philosophical.

Technically I see this as a decent if unmemorable read, and were I to judge this strictly on the writer’s skill, I would call this a three star novel. Overlong passages of narrative, often unbroken by action or dialogue and in lengthy paragraphs, are likely to hit the average adolescent’s snooze button early on. The choice to tell everything in past tense as opposed to the more widely used literary present deadens the pace further. When we finally do get a passage of dialogue, it is so stiff and stilted that not even the most engaging teacher, when reading this out loud to her class, could possibly breathe life into it. One character is depicted as speaking with a Sambo-like dialect, all “dis” and “dat”. If one is going to use a dialect, make it respectful and readable.  This verges on mimicry, and any Black students in the room that haven’t tuned out or gone to sleep yet are going to be pissed, and rightly so.

I can see that Walters meant well in writing from the point of view of a Black slave girl and in depicting a victory gained by Black people on their own behalf, as opposed to the usual torture, death, and despair that represented those kidnapped and forced into slavery. But this is also where I have to step back and ask what the ultimate effect of this book will be on students that read it.

For the average or below average middle school student, reading all the way through even a fairly brief novel such as this one will likely be the only book they make it through during the term in which slavery is covered in the social studies, humanities, or language arts/social studies block. Part of the power of good literature—which this isn’t, and in some ways that may be for the better—is that it drives home a central message. I can envision students that pay attention to this book, perhaps because the teacher is particularly engaging and has driven home its importance, and then walking away from the term’s work convinced that all any slave in any part of the USA ever had to do to get out of his or her predicament was to find a good attorney, take the matter to court, and bang, that’s it, we’re free. Let’s party.

This novel addresses a relatively brief period in the northern states, where slavery had been legal but had not been as widespread as in the Southern states. King Cotton had not become the dominant economic mover it would become by 1850, when its grip on all of US governmental institutions would be absolute. By then, northerners made their money indirectly from the cotton industry in everything from shipping, boat building, rope making, and banking to growing crops for consumption by Southerners and in some cases, for their slaves.

If one is going to teach about slavery, far better to do so as part of an American Civil War unit. It’s a tender, sensitive, painful thing for children of color, but it’s not okay to deceive them, however unintentionally, with the misimpression that all slaves had options that they didn’t.  Better to use portions of Alex Haley’s Roots; teach about the vast but much-ignored free Black middle class in the north that was the primary moving force behind the Underground Railroad; or to show the movie “Glory” in class to emphasize the positive, powerful things that African-American people did during this revolutionary time, than to emphasize something as obscure, limited, and potentially misleading as what Walter provides here.

I am trying to think of instances in which this book might be part of a broader, more extensive curriculum such as the home-schooling of a voracious young reader, yet even then I find myself back at the technical aspect, which results in a book that is dull, dull, dull. Literature should engage a student and cause him or her to reach for more, rather than make students wonder if it will ever end.

In general I have resolved to read fewer YA titles than when I was teaching and treat myself to more advanced work during my retirement. I made an exception for this title because the focus appeared to be right in my wheelhouse, addressing US slavery and the civil rights of Black folk in America. I regret doing so now, but it doesn’t have to happen to you too.

Save yourself while there’s time. Read something else. And for heaven’s sake, don’t foist this book on kids.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd*****

theinventionofwingsTwo of today’s hottest political topics have to do with equality. As we follow and sometimes participate in the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the fight to keep Planned Parenthood funded and maintain a woman’s right to own her body and say what happens to it, this elegantly crafted work of historical fiction could not, strangely enough, be more timely. The Invention of Wings is a fictional biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists, the first to make screaming headlines by speaking out publicly decades before women would see the right to vote, and decades before the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. As is essential in dealing with the rights of then-enslaved African-Americans in the south, Kidd adds an additional character, a slave named Hetty, written alternately with the Sarah’s story. I say it is essential to do so; this is because it is wrong to write about the marginalization and subjugation of an entire people, and then not include a representative of that group into the plot. As usual, Kidd doesn’t disappoint.

Much as I love historical fiction, one thing that makes me a little crazy is wondering where the research ends and fiction commences. In her afterword, the author lets us know specifically what is true and what isn’t. She even gives us a brief bibliography to pursue if we feel moved to do so; the only other historical fiction writer I know of that does this is Laurence Yep, my hands-down favorite YA author. Thus, Kidd places herself in outstanding company.

The Grimke sisters were born into the elite planter class, a tiny minority among Caucasians in the South, and in the very belly of the beast: Charleston, South Carolina. Partially because of the tremendous brutality meted out to the plantation’s slaves right before her tiny eyes there at home, Sarah Grimke grew up opposed to slavery. As a much older sister, she had a formative role helping her mother raise Angelina, who also became a fierce, uncompromising abolitionist.

It is one thing to take up a cause that is small but in which one has a support base. For the Grimkes, there was nothing. Eventually both had to move north for their own safety. And although, as a history major and a feminist of the 1970’s I had read about the Grimke sisters many times, it is within the well-crafted, deeply thoughtful, well researched pages of this novel that they first came to life for me.

Hetty, the slave depicted within these pages, actually existed, but the story Kidd writes for her is entirely fictional. The real Hetty died before Sarah was grown. Still, her character felt as real to me, and was easily as well developed as either of the Grimke sisters. Hetty is not passive, not waiting to be “set” free. She understands that the only freedom she is likely to receive will be what she can do for herself. A nice touch Kidd adds is in making Hetty one of the children of Denmark Vesey, the free African-American that attempted to organize and lead a slave revolt.

Everything here is carefully constructed and absorbing. Kidd has long demonstrated formidable talent in constructing well developed characters and vivid settings; the difference here (as opposed to The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid’s Chair, the two others of hers I have read) is the research involved. As with everything else, she blends fact and detail into a well spun tale.

I should add here that the literacy level required to deal with this text is higher than most. Don’t toss it out there for your average middle schooler to read, because it will prove too difficult. Because of the way she builds her story, brick by brick, the pace doesn’t really pick up until about halfway into the book. This isn’t a rip-roaring page turner; it’s a series of quiet nights by the fire, or curled up on your favorite window seat, or by the side of your bed. Give it the time it deserves.
Though I got my copy from the Seattle Public Library, I consider this title worth the cover price. Highly recommended.