Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) once again explores themes of race and women’s rights in The Invention of Wings (Viking, $27.95), a powerful story of rebellion and heroism inspired by real-life 19th-century American abolitionist, writer, and suffragist Sarah Grimké.
Set in Charleston, S.C., during the early 1800s, much of the novel is based on actual events and historical figures. Sarah, the daughter of a prominent judge, grew up in an aristocratic, slave-holding family surrounded by privilege. She and her younger sister, Angelina, would eventually break with the family to become outspoken pioneers of the abolitionist movement and early champions of women’s rights.
The novel opens on the day 11-year-old Sarah is given 10-year-old Hetty as a “waiting maid” and playmate. Sarah, who has already begun to express her lifelong hatred of slavery, tries to refuse the gift, even writing out a statement freeing the girl, which her parents ignore.
Hetty’s sass and spirit — much of it learned from her rebellious mother, the Grimkés’ prized seamstress — highjacks the story from the minute she opens her mouth. Like Sarah, Hetty refuses to tow the line at an early age, a trait expressed in the name her mother gave her at birth: Handful.
“I was a handful. That’s not how I got my name, though …. Master Grimké named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful.”
A first-person narrative, split between Sarah and Handful, draws us into their two contrasting worlds and the experiences they first share as friends and confidants. But when the precocious Sarah defies the rules and teaches her maid to read and write, their unequal punishments lead Sarah to make a promise that drives the plot forward for three decades.
Sarah, a handful in her own modest way, comes to life through Kidd’s vivid reimagining of the daily, domestic details that define her life: churchgoing, dress fittings, parties, beaus and her all-too-brief study of Latin and the law. The effort Sarah and her sister make to escape the roles they’re expected to play — dutiful daughters, wives and mothers — parallel the far more dangerous yearning for freedom felt by Handful and her mother, Charlotte, and the risks they take to pursue it.
The urban slavery seen in the novel bears little resemblance to the usual white-columned mansions, endless cotton fields and slave cabins associated with the pre-Civil War era. Most of the events in The Invention of Wings take place in Charleston, where “the slaves dominated the streets, doing their owners’ bidding, shopping the market, delivering messages and invitations for teas and dinner parties. Some were hired out and trekked back and forth to work… You could see them gathered at street corners, wharves and grog shops.”
Handful and Charlotte’s superior dressmaking skills, much in demand in town, reinforce the message that enslavement was not the equivalent of helplessness: Kidd is overturning some stubborn stereotypes here. Moreover, Charlotte’s autobiographical story quilt — based on the quilts of Harriet Powers, born a slave in Georgia — is an example of her will to document the truth of her past, to have a voice even though she was forbidden to read and write.
Despite the brutal punishments awaiting any disobedience, Charlotte and her daughter never accept the limits of their enslavement. “You do your rebellions any way you can,” Handful says, and to that end, they make their own quilts out of dress scraps stolen from their mistress, sneak into town to earn their own money selling piecework and eventually get involved in a dangerous plot led by the historical Denmark Vesey, a free black who fomented revolution in 1822.
Sarah and her sister Angelina, on the other hand, though they will later become “perhaps the most radical females to come out of the antebellum South,” have few options as young women. Sarah “was trapped same as me,” Handful notes, telling her mistress, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”
As in Kidd’s previous work, mothers and daughters play key roles in the story. In the face of dehumanizing treatment, Charlotte teaches her daughter a fundamental lesson in civil disobedience, demonstrating that they should never “bow and scrape” to anyone. Sarah’s mother passes the torch of a different tradition: one of helplessness, obedience, restriction and passivity. “Every girl,” she tells Sarah, “must have ambition knocked out of her for her own sake.”
Early in the book, Handful’s mother tells her that their people once knew how to fly, that her shoulder blades are all that’s left of her wings. “One day,” she assures Handful, “you gon get ’em back.” The remarkable courage and hope found in The Invention of Wings is a reminder that we all have those wings — and tells us a lot more about how we got them.
A version of this review is online at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.