Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd
ISBN: 978-0-670-02478-0, 2014, U.S. h.c. $27.95
Race is a central theme in American literature, and, on that subject, author Sue Monk Kidd has written a powerful new novel, The Invention of Wings. Her 2002 novel, The Secret Life of Bees, also about race, was set in 1964 during the civil rights era. Lily, a motherless fourteen year old with an abusive father takes refuge with an African American family of three sisters. Under their roof, Lily learns the true meaning of family.
In The Invention of Wings, Kidd goes back in time to the early 19th century, showing the uneasy relationship between an enlightened white woman from a slave-owning family, and her African-American slave. The co-narrators are Sarah Grimke, a judge’s daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, and Handful (Hetty) Grimke, who is given by Judge and Mrs. Grimke as a present to Sarah on her eleventh birthday.
Handful, the daughter of the Grimkes’ seamstress, grows up learning many bitter lessons about her station in life. She doesn’t want to be Sarah’s slave, and Sarah doesn’t want to own any slaves, but, in complying with the Grimke parents’ wishes, they form a sort of friendship.
Historians say that Sarah Grimke, though dedicated to abolition and women’s rights, was a poor public speaker. Novelist Kidd suggests that Sarah developed a throat constriction and stammer as a young child as a result of watching the beating of a slave. Her questioning of the status quo, combined with her stammer and her lack of conventional good looks, work against her in a society in which women of her class are expected to marry well. Her dream of studying law is dashed with laughter and scorn by her father and older brothers. Eventually the care and education of the fourteenth child in the family, Angelina, becomes her project. She raises Angelina with anti-slavery views.
Of Sarah, Handful says: “She was trapped, same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of the people around her, not by the law.”
Since her parents will not allow her to set Handful free, Sarah breaks the law by teaching her to read, and helps her in small ways, such as giving her written permission to leave the house and go into the city of Charleston. Handful learns the art of sewing from her mother, who is allowed by the Grimkes to take paid sewing jobs outside their household and keep some of her earnings. She is saving to buy her freedom and Handful’s. Handful’s mother eventually meets Denmark Vesey, an African-American carpenter who bought his freedom in 1799 when he won a city lottery. Vesey, a real person, founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. Handful’s mother is arrested, and then disappears, after failing to yield the sidewalk to a white woman. (Later, Handful discovers she has a half-sister who is Denmark Vesey’s daughter) .Inspired by the successful slave uprising which resulted in an independent Haiti, Vesey organizes a slave rebellion in Charleston.
“I wanted this work to acknowledge the many enslaved and free black Americans who fought, plotted, resisted and died for the sake of freedom,” writes Kidd. Handful aids in the rebellion by posing as a cleaner and stealing a bullet mold from the city arsenal. The rebellion failed and Vesey and other leaders were hanged in 1822.By shifting back and forth between Sarah’s and Handful’s points of view, Kidd keeps readers constantly on edge. In 1819, Sarah accompanies her ailing father north in search of a cure. In the northern states she experiences for the first time a way of life without slaves. She meets Quakers and joins their Christian denomination because it opposes slavery and has women preachers.
Within the anti-slavery movement, the Grimke sisters are unique for having experienced first-hand the institution of slavery and its evil effect on everyone involved in it. Their work within the movement is well presented by Kidd, and well documented, as an internet search shows. Both Sarah and Angelina find love, though only one of them marries.
Kidd’s extensive historical research does much more than provide a backdrop to the story. The period details further the plot. For instance, the Grimke family acquires a state-of-the-art copper bathing tub on wheels, an innovation which allows a lying-down bath, and can be drained rather than dumped or bailed. When Sarah discovers Handful emerging from this tub in her room she feels, at first, that her privacy has been invaded. Then she realizes that “Handful had immersed herself in forbidden privileges, yes, but mostly in the belief that she was worthy of these privileges. What she’d done was not a revolt but a baptism.”
Another striking period detail is the black mourning dress that Handful sews for Mrs. Grimke after the judge’s death. This heavy, beaded garment, with its multi-layered veils, hides the wearer and plays a pivotal role in Handful’s story.
Along with Denmark Vesey, Kidd brings several other historical figures into her novel, including abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Israel Morris, and Theodore Weld (Angelina’s husband); poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott. Handful, though fictional, is so well-constructed and multi-faceted that she seems real.
“My aim was not to write a thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s life, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life,” writes Kidd. She has certainly succeeded. I hope that The Invention of Wings becomes a movie, as did The Secret Life of Bees.
For information on Ruth Latta’s books, check out http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com