As I (Helen) was thinking of books to order from the library to kick off my reading goals for 2015, it seemed The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, was being recommended left, right, and center in the blogging world. Having now just finished it, I understand why. This book is captivating, beautifully written, and impossible to put down. Inspired by the real life story of sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, I love that this book is rooted in the heroic actions of real women who would not sit idly by in a world where slavery and gender inequality were the norm.
While The Invention of Wings is based on the real lives of the Grimké sisters, Kidd incorporates the story of Hetty “Handful” Grimké into her storytelling. An urban slave in the household of the Grimké family, chapters dedicated to Hetty highlight her life’s story and perspective, and alternate with chapters viewing events through Sarah Grimké’s eyes. Handful is a fictional character, added by Kidd to make real the perspectives of those who owned slaves and those who were enslaved, but the book simply could not do without her. As Kidd says in her author’s note, “From the moment I decided to write about Sarah Grimké, I felt compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character, giving her a life and a voice that could be entwined with Sarah’s. I felt I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both of their worlds would have to be represented here.” Though Hetty “Handful” is fictional, she too, is based in historical record; as a young girl, Sarah Grimké was given a young slave named Hetty to be her handmaid. Sarah taught Hetty to read, which was against the law, and from Sarah’s records, it seems the two became close. Nothing else is known about Hetty, but what is imagined by Kidd propels the story forward.
In The Invention of Wings, at a young age, Sarah is traumatized by seeing the whipping of a slave. This renders her mute for several weeks, and results in a stammer that comes and goes throughout her adult life. More importantly, the event solidifies for Sarah the evils of slavery. She determines at a young age that she will become a lawyer, but in the early 1800’s, this was a ludicrous notion for a woman, who could only hope to marry well and bear children. As she grows older and her opinions of slavery become more and more inconvenient for her family, who own a plantation in Charleston, Sarah is increasingly ostracized. She and her younger sister, Angelina “Nina” Grimké, would go on to become some of most influential abolitionists and women’s rights activists in America, but not without much heartache, upheaval, violence, and upset to family, friends, church, and their home city of Charleston. Handful’s story is beautifully woven throughout, allowing the reader to follow Sarah and Handful through thirty-five years of a relationship which is at times as innocent as two little girls drinking tea in celebration of a reading milestone reached, while at other times is a picture of the brokenness of our fallen world. I loved both characters for their determination to build their own lives, despite the tremendous societal influences and evils that attempted to dictate what their lives would be.
Clear a weekend off your schedule, and set it aside to read The Invention of Wings.