Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SISTERS AND REBELS by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall Kirkus Star


A Struggle for the Soul of America

by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall

Pub Date: May 21st, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-393-04799-8
Publisher: Norton

A history of 20th-century sisters who bore witness to Southern culture, politics, and values.

In 1973, Hall (Revolt Against Chivalry, 1993, etc.), director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina, interviewed two sisters, “improbable voices from the deepest South,” who each had grappled with her heritage and was shaped by a “maelstrom of historical events and processes.” Grace Lumpkin (1891-1980) and her younger sister, Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin (1897-1988), are the central characters in a sweeping, richly detailed intellectual and political history of America from the 1920s to the 1980s, an absorbing narrative based on impressive scholarship: the women’s published and private writings; their racist father’s “bitter, murderous memoir,” in which he discloses participating in the Ku Klux Klan; and abundant archival sources and oral history interviews. William Lumpkin boasted that he taught his children “to love the Lost Cause”—i.e., the South’s past glory and the Confederacy’s “brilliant and heroic” fight. The Lumpkin sisters, however, came to see their Southern past “as both a burden and an opportunity” as they sought to create “new patterns in the tangled threads of memory and history.” Both sisters observed racial violence and “grinding class inequity” that led them to redefine the meaning of whiteness and their complicity in America’s social structure. Both were educated at Brenau, a women’s college that drew its white students from relatively wealthy families. Grace took a degree in domestic science; Katharine became a student leader and, after graduating, worked as a traveling secretary of the YWCA, whose mission was to save souls and nurture “independent womanhood.” As Grace gravitated to fiction writing, Katharine continued her education in sociology and politics, where ideas from Darwin to John Dewey shook her preconceptions. Hall traces the sisters’ professional careers, their campaigns against the oppression of blacks and women, their love affairs (Katharine lived with a woman for more than three decades) and involvement in communism, and, eventually, the divergent paths that resulted in their becoming “the most intimate of strangers.”

Sharply etched biographical portraits focus a compelling history.