Since I enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees, when I saw that Sue Monk Kidd had a new novel coming out, I threw my name on the (extremely long) waiting list at the library and rejoiced when my number finally came up. In The Invention of Wings, Kidd once again dives into the challenges facing both women in general and women of color, but this time in a more distant historical context: the slave-holding south of the early nineteenth century. Following the lives of Sarah Grimké, the middle daughter of a slave-holding family in Charleston with objections to the institution, and Hetty, a slave girl owned by the family who is about Sarah’s age, The Invention of Wings looks at the multitude of ways a person could be considered enslaved or free.
On her eleventh birthday in 1803, Sarah Grimké is given her very own slave, a girl not much younger than herself, to be her personal maid. Despite having lived her life in Charleston surrounded by slavery, Sarah objects and immediately tries to free Hetty. It proves to be an act her family won’t allow so she must find other ways to demonstrate her objections in a world where her voice, opinions, and desires are challenged and disregarded simply because she’s female. Those challenges are set down alongside Hetty’s (a.k.a. Handful) life under slavery and her struggles to hold onto the hope for freedom.
I have to admit, it wasn’t until Sarah met Lucretia Mott (more than halfway through the novel), that the name finally clicked in my head and I took a break to satisfy my curiosity on Google. The Sarah Grimké of the novel and her story are a fictionalization of the historical Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and one of the first to bring attention to women’s rights, linking the two in a move that proved divisive to many abolitionists. Many of the incidents in the novel surrounding Sarah are inspired by true historic events in her life, but the slave Hetty a.k.a. Handful and her story are almost entirely fiction. The delineation between fact and fiction are laid out in a detailed afterword. Given that Sarah Grimké is best remembered in conjunction with her sister, Angelina, Kidd takes the opportunity to examine the ideas of sisterhood as well, both literally and figuratively, though to a far lesser degree than slavery, racial equality, and women’s rights.
I found the novel held my interest but it didn’t seem to set itself apart from other novels I’ve read set in that time period. After realizing it was based in part on an actual historic figure who has been largely glossed over in the history books, I was able to finish reading it with a different mindset that helped me to better appreciate what Kidd was trying to accomplish, but as a novel I still think it’s just another strong example of a story that’s been told before. There is perhaps too much balance and equating slavery with women’s rights, but at the same time, as Sarah discovers, the hindrances of one limit the effectiveness of efforts to end the other. For me, the latter half of the novel stands out more than the beginning and I wish more time had been spent on Sarah and Angelina’s struggles as she embarked on her career as orators (but some of that may be tied to my lingering disappointment at recent Supreme Court rulings that encroach dangerously on women’s rights).