Those skinny ones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.” – from The Invention of Wings, page 1 –
Sarah Grimke and her sister, Angelina, grew up in a privileged family in South Carolina during the 1800’s. They were two of the first female abolition activists, who later became feminist speakers and advocates. Despite their courage and impact on social advancement, they are not well known in our historical record.
Sue Monk Kidd has brought these two sisters to life in the pages of her remarkable novel, The Invention of Wings. The book focuses on Sarah, the older of the two sisters, and opens in 1803 when Sarah receives the gift of a slave girl for her eleventh birthday. Hetty “Handful” is ten years old, the daughter of an outspoken slave named Charlotte who works as the seamstress for the family. Narrated in the alternating voices of both Handful and Sarah, the story unfolds over nearly four decades.
Thematically, the novel explores the idea of freedom (or the lack thereof) both from the perspective of slavery and that of women’s rights. For Sarah, her dreams of doing something exceptional are squashed because she is a woman. For Handful, her life is limited by the fact that she is viewed as less than a person, someone who lives only to serve the needs of her “owners.” Both woman find a voice in Kidd’s novel, giving the reader a glimpse back in history to a time when women and blacks had no rights.
For me, Handful’s story was the more powerful. Her relationship with her mother, Charlotte, is well developed and tugs at the heartstrings. I especially appreciated the narrative thread about quilts and quilting. The rich history of quilting has been said to play an important role in the cause of abolition. In their book Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard explore the idea of a slave code which contained secret messages that helped direct slaves to freedom. The book has become controversial and many people have debunked its theory, but others are convinced of its truth (the book was based on oral testimony). Kidd uses this history in her book – Charlotte and Handful hide items by sewing them between the fabric of their quilts – and also explores the history of “story quilts” – a form of quilting whereby the quilter tells a story.
The Invention of Wings is a rich novel that reminds us of the often painful road to freedom for blacks and women. There are many historical characters included in the book, as well as fictional (Handful is a fictional character but is symbolic of the countless number of slaves who sought freedom in the 1800s). Kidd develops her characters well and her decision to use alternating points of view is a good one which gives the reader an in depth understanding of both Sarah and Handful.
Bittersweet, emotional, and eloquently crafted, The Invention of Wings will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially that which is based in the South during the early part of the nineteenth century.