On Sarah Grimké's 11th birthday in 1803, her mother gives her a birthday gift she tries to refuse--10 year old Hetty Grimké--Sarah's very own slave. And so opens Sue Monk Kidd's third novel, The Invention of Wings. Inspired by the true story of early-nineteenth-century abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimké, Kidd paints a poignant depiction of two women inextricably linked by the horrors of slavery.
Sarah writes up a document to free Hetty, but as a member of one of Charleston, South Carolina's first families, her mother reminds her of what's expected of her and that she must oblige. And so the girls grow up together, yet separate, as a result of their very different circumstances. Their extraordinary story is told in the first person and alternates between the voices of Sarah and Hetty. Hetty, by the way, is the name given to her by the Grimkés. Her mother Charlotte named her Handful and carefully doles out bits of their past, stories of Handful's father, whom she'll never meet, and of Charlotte's own mother, who was brought to Charleston from Africa to become a slave as a small girl.
Because Charlotte is an exceptionally skilled seamstress, able to make very fine quilts and clothing, they have a fairly comfortable place in the household. As literacy for slaves is illegal, Charlotte sews Handful a story quilt that tells of the most significant events of her life, and that quilt imbues the storytelling tradition quite gracefully into the book.
Sarah's life also has confines. She is a very bright child encouraged to read books by her father and brother and she dreams of becoming a barrister. This idea is inevitably ruined as it clashes with Charleston's expectations of a young lady. She also learns that it's forbidden to instruct slave children to read, yet secretly she continues to teach Handful. While the girls share a lot over the years, there are nonetheless hurdles to their friendship. In particular, Sarah is haunted by a promise she made to Charlotte when she was very young.
Sarah has strong ideas about abolition and equality, and a time comes when she heads north to be free of her stuffy family and the institution of slavery, which she hates. Her adult life is influenced by a Quaker man and his religion. This also distances her from Handful, who must stay in Charleston. Eventually, Sarah and her younger sister, Nina become infamous activists for abolition and women's rights. While this allows her the independence she has long desired, Handful's fate is not so ideal.
Don't forget to read the Author's Note! It is important, as The Invention of Wings is a novel based on fact: the Grimké sisters were real-life abolitionists, and are joined in the historical record by a number of other characters in this novel, including Denmark Vesey, a free black man executed for planning a slave uprising; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker activist for women's rights and abolition; and Sarah Mapps Douglass, a free black activist and educator. Hetty Grimké's life, however, left few facts: she was given as a gift to Sarah, but disappears shortly thereafter from the historical record. And Charlotte is entirely Kidd's creation, a fascinating character who takes risks, hoping to find something better for herself and her family.
Readers of her previous novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, will be familiar with the strong, sympathetic characters. A number of issues are deftly explored, including activism, feminism, abolition, religion, and relationships. It's profoundly engaging and thought-provoking and I very much look forward to her Milwaukee visit on Monday, February 10th. She'll be speaking in Centennial Hall (733 N Eighth St) at 7 p.m. A book signing will follow and books will be for sale. The event is sponsored by Boswell Book Company and the Friends of MPL.
Jacki @ Central