The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

17th Feb 2014

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd has based her latest novel on the true story of abolitionist and feminist campaigner Sarah Grimké, a woman who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be.

Novels about slavery are never pretty reads. Combine slavery with misogyny and you surely end up with something chronically depressing. Unless of course said novel is full of feisty determined women to cheer for, which The Invention of Wings most definitely is.

The novel’s two main protagonists are Sarah, who is about to turn eleven when the story opens, and her personal slave Hetty, known throughout the dual narrative as Handful because that’s the name her mother gave her.

The book is told in first-person, alternating between Sarah and Handful, and Kidd handles the difficult structure with assurance. Though Handful’s is the more horrific story by far, Kidd draws intelligent parallels between the two girls by emphasising Sarah’s burgeoning radical feminism in an era when girls were pretty much limited to simpering, sewing and getting married, alongside Handful’s refusal to lie down and accept her place.

Sarah’s first act of rebellion is to reject Handful as a gift (even at eleven she knows deep down that human beings should not be bought and sold as property), and when she is forced into accepting she teaches Handful to read – illegal in the South, and resulting in unpleasant punishments for both girls.

Unsurprisingly, the gulf between their societal positions means real friendship is impossible – Kidd is not so sentimental as to romanticise that – but over the course of the next 35-odd years neither stops caring about the other, and there is a satisfactory conclusion to their relationship.

The title comes from a story told to Handful by her mother Charlotte, also a Grimké slave, which tells that before slaves were taken from Africa, they could fly. Charlotte is a feisty, disobedient seamstress who sews her life story into beautiful quilts, and is employed partly as a tool for Kidd to describe the punishments meted out to slaves who disrespected their owners.

Early on, Grimké matriarch Mary (‘missus’) hoists one of Charlotte’s legs behind her and fastens it to a strap around her neck; if she drops her leg, she strangles herself.

Flying is a theme throughout, a metaphor for Sarah’s and Handful’s various physical and psychological escape attempts: for Handful the dream is to become free, but she is tied to her environment in a way Sarah, despite the limitations of her gender, is not. Handful does find a sort of freedom in her literacy, and in sneaking out into the city to join with rebellious slaves led by free Denmark Vesey.

Sarah... makes a name for herself as a radical feminist and abolitionist in a period when neither cause would win her many friends among the patriarchal slave-owning whites in South CarolinaSarah is desperate to escape the stifling confines of her position and do something worthwhile, her definition of which means she makes a name for herself as a radical feminist and abolitionist in a period when neither cause would win her many friends among the patriarchal slave-owning whites in South Carolina.

She was also a Presbyterian in a city where the whites were Anglicans, and her family’s reputation would have suffered so much for her views that, when Sarah decides in the novel to move to a Quaker household in Philadelphia, her mother pretends that she’s left Charleston for her health. Sarah is joined by her youngest sister (and god-daughter), Angelina, and together they write incendiary pamphlets and tour the lecture circuit.

Kidd has left the broad outlines of the real Sarah Grimké’s life untouched, though she makes it clear she has used Sarah as a basis for a novel and this is not meant as a biography. She condenses some of the facts to create a faster-paced narrative; while this usually works, the speed of some decisions occasionally feels a bit trite.

Kidd has created two interesting and sympathetic characters in Sarah and Handful, though it’s easier to root for Handful. Hers is, after all, a terrible story and she is the more powerful character; despite Sarah being an awesome figurehead for early American feminism, in today’s more secular society her piety and religious calling can seem overwrought and grating. Still, it’s evidence of Kidd’s desire to be true to her period that she doesn’t shy away from giving readers the full contemporary religious whack.

Ultimately this is a smart novel that demonstrates, if further demonstration were needed, why the world should forever be grateful to people like Sarah Grimké.