In my December 2013 Chair’s column, I challenged committee members to read a book, any book, on women and the law. Well, I spent last weekend devouring Sue Monk Kidd’s newest novel, The Invention of Wings. Given how much I loved The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, I knew that The Invention of Wings would prove to be a page-turner. I was right.
The book addresses the issues of slavery and women’s rights in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina, and is told from the point of view of its two main characters, Sarah Grimke and Hetty or Handful. Handful is the slave Sarah’s mother “gave” Sarah for her eleventh birthday.
Kidd was inspired to write this book after viewing Judy Chicago’s magnificent exhibition, “The Dinner Party” in 2007. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were included in a list of 999 important women in history and mythology, whose names are inscribed on the “Heritage Floor” of the exhibit. The Grimke sisters were the first women to publicly speak out against slavery and the first to write a feminist manifesto. They were also among the first to realize that women had just as few rights as slaves.
The Invention of Wings explores Sarah Grimke’s awakening of conscience as the daughter of an affluent slave-owning family. Her life is closely intertwined with that of Handful, who sleeps on the floor outside Sarah’s bedroom. Sarah abhors slavery and is a first-hand witness to the horrors of it through Handful and the other slaves the family owns.
Handful becomes deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement and risks her life for the cause.
Sarah’s dream is to be the first female jurist, but that dream is trampled by her family and society’s prejudice. Handful knows nothing beyond slavery, and the closest she’s ever been to freedom is when she places her “spirit” in a spirit tree where it will learn to fly with the birds.
Sarah is the white daughter of an well-heeled family, and Handful is considered chattel, but they are both oppressed and fighting for the same things: freedom, equality and a voice.
The account of Sarah’s life is based upon diaries, letters, speeches, and other historical documents Kidd researched. Handful is loosely based on a real person. Real historical figures appear in the book, such as Denmark Vesey, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Mapp, and Theodore Weld.
Kidd was motivated to tell, not only the story of the Grimke sisters’ mission to speak out against slavery, but the story of the opposition they faced in attempting to speak out about anything of substance because, after all, they were women.
In a January 8, 2014 interview with NPR’s Lynn Neary, Kidd said, “Gender and race got very entwined in the 19th century as abolition broke out and then women wanted the right to speak about it. I think it was controversial even among abolitionists, and the Grimke sisters were told to pipe down. They refused to do that. They said, ‘We could help the slaves so much more if you gave us the rights to speak and act.’ “
Yet again, Sue Monk Kidd does not disappoint and brings history to life for us! ■