Unlikely Leaders and Heroes as Agents of Historic Change

When serendipitously two bestselling historical novels based on abolitionists came up in my library e-book hold queue within days, I was drawn into re-imagining two unlikely leaders and two heroes with much to gain or lose from social change.

Every major social change requires people willing to defy powerful group norms and put their own lives on the line. Both novels considered this human side of history and offer insight that is instructive for any time.

James McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for Good Lord Bird, his irreverent account of John Brown and a young freed slave dragged into his crusade.  A year ago a friend and amateur Civil War historian took us on a John Brown tour of Harpers Ferry and nearby sites.  I wondered then what kind of man Brown was to do what he did. In McBride’s re-imagining, Brown is prophetic, crazy and charismatic, living his own alternative reality.  He pursues the end of slavery through his own version of a holy war and sweeps a small cast of characters into his outrageous plans. McBride describes Brown as a hysterical force of nature these followers didn't resist even when they could see the folly ahead.

Sue Monk Kidd tells a gentler and yet profound story of rebellion in The Invention of Wings as she re-imagines the lives of abolitionist Sarah Grimke, her younger sister Angelina and their family’s slave Hetty.  Sarah is a smart woman growing up in Charleston society where there is no place for her alternative vision.  In Hetty’s companion story, she too is on a journey for self-discovery and respect.  The Grimke sisters evolve into famous crusaders for abolition and women’s rights. Kidd tells how these women break from the social norms that oppress them.  

Brown and the Grimkes sisters became polarizing historical figures and catalysts for great social change. That they are unlikely leaders is an important part of their story. However, the more engaging and insightful narrative perspective belongs to the two slave heroes, who are author’s creations swept into these moments in history.  Their survival has quite literally depended on accepting existing social norms and laws.  At the beginning of their journeys, they have little sense of their own identity, and yet they overcome deep self-doubts and become willing change agents in their own right.

McBride’s slave hero and narrator, Onion, is only a child, but he observes the motivations of adults rather clearly as he tries to figure out how to live life. He intuits how self-interest drives some people to act and others to duck. For all the laugh-out loud humor McBride offers, he gives a telling account of human motivation and choice in life changing situations. 

Kidd works out these choices between compliance and defiance within the narrow confines of family and friends.  Change agents are created and nurtured through these significant relationships long before they ever step into public leadership. And without a few supportive relationships, they would lack the courage and perseverance to stay in those roles.

Both books are great reads if you enjoy and trust novelists to re-imagine the interior motivations and emotions of historical figures.  McBride and Kidd might not reconstruct and interpret the past with the same rigor of historians, but they do get at essential truths about seeking social change.  If John Brown or Sarah Grimke swept into our lives tomorrow would we find these unlikely leaders and their call to break powerful social norms very inspiring or too weird and dangerous? The imagined stories of Onion and Hetty speak to us about how we might feel when faced with our own chance to be a hero for change.