“The Invention of Wings” is the best-selling, Oprah-recommended, new novel by Sue Monk Kidd, who also wrote “The Secret Life of Bees.” I get most of my books from the library, and I had to wait several months for this one because so many people had requested it. I hope they liked it as much as I did.
“The Invention of Wings” is a fictionalized account of the lives of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina where were early and outspoken opponents of slavery. Their voices were unique because they came from a slave-holding family. The sisters were also some of the first women’s rights activists. In fact, they divided the abolitionists because they refused to speak about the enslavement of “negroes” without also speaking about the enslavement of women.
The book is fictionalized because it imagines the relationship between Sarah and her personal slave Hetty (Handful). Sarah really was given a slave girl named Hetty on her 11th birthday, but we do not know what became of Hetty. The book gives Hetty a voice and suggests the ways that Sarah’s relationship with her own slave might have influenced her journey to abolitionism.
The story is very well written, introducing other characters that we care about and portraying as realistic a view of slavery in Charleston as is possible. I was intrigued by the growth of Sarah – and Angelina – and Hetty as they each learned their voice and came to understand what it means to be free. At one point in the book, Hetty tells Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.” The book is insightful in the many things that might enslave us – loyalty, family, societal restrictions, roles that we have chosen.
I was especially interested in the portrayal of the Grimke sisters and how they mingled with the intellectual elite of their day. They worked tirelessly for abolition and devoted their lives to this cause. But their contributions are overshadowed in the history books by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott, and Theodore Weld (Angelina’s husband). I discovered the Grimke sisters when I visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati a couple of years ago.
“The Invention of Wings” is based on historical fact in much the same way as “Frog Music.” Wings, however, is the much better book and one that I will recommend and think about for a long time. It made me want to learn even more about the Grimke sisters. One quote I will especially remember is attributed to Lucretia Mott. Sarah is talking with her about the deep desire of slaves to be free. Lucretia responds, “God fills us with all sorts of yearnings that go against the grain of the world – but the fact those yearnings often come to nothing, well, I doubt that’s God’s doing. I think we know that’s men’s doing.”