Madame Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, the youngest child in her family and the first person in her family to be born free. Her family were slaves in Louisiana until emancipation in 1865.
Sarah was born in 1867 and lived an extraordinary life.
During her at once difficult and blessed life, Sarah married twice, had a daughter, and built a cosmetics empire.
The story is carefully pieced together so that the historically verifiable parts of Sarah’s life are blended with the broader history of her communities and with just enough artistic license to make it easy to read. There’s quite a bit of text on each page for what is also a picture book (and the pictures are wonderful – sometimes troubling, sometimes joyful, sometimes full of despair, sometimes full of hope).
Beginning in the late 1870’s, each short chapter spans a number of years in Sarah’s life and we follow her from being a very young child who works with her family sharecropping, through to just prior to her death at the age of just 51.
There are insights into the life of poverty and struggle that was the seemingly inevitable lot of colored people immediately following emancipation. (The author Kathryn Lasky explains that she uses the term ‘colored’ to be consistent with the time that Madame Walker lived.) But Sarah manages to rise above her circumstances.
In desperation, having lost almost all of her family and her husband and with her hair falling out, Sarah prays and then starts searching for a homemade cure.
It's this homemade cure that is the starting point for Sarah’s empire.
This isn’t a religious book – there is just one mention of prayer – but it is certainly inspiring. Best of all, Sarah’s ongoing desire to lift others comes through loud and clear.
There are lots of jumping off points in this story too – mentions of aspects of history that could be more fully investigated such as the emancipation of slaves in the US; the Ku Klux Klan; the rampant effect of Yellow Fever and Cholera; voting rights for women; segregation, discrimination and so on.
With the story of Madame Walker tucked away in memory, we all may choose to work a little harder, forgive and move on a little quicker, care a little more for others, and remember our own self worth a little more easily. Such a wonderful book.