The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
“If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.” This is one of the first lines spoken by Sarah Grimké, one of the two main characters, in Sue Monk Kidd’s powerful novel about abolition of slavery. While Sarah does not always follow her own advice, she does become one of the most infamous anti-slavery spokespersons of her day.
Sarah is the daughter of wealthy Charleston, South Carolina family who was born in 1793 into privilege, including the ownership of slaves. But Sarah was a curious child and a voracious reader and from the time she was quite young, she questioned the morality of slavery. When her mother presented Sarah with her own slave, Handful, to be her handmaiden, on the occasion of Sarah’s 11th birthday, Sarah tried to emancipate Handful by signing a certificate of manumission freeing Handful (which Sarah’s parents promptly destroyed).
Handful is the other protagonist in the story, growing up alongside Sarah. The author juxtaposes the two girl’s lives to demonstrate both their differences and their similarities. Both want to be loved and accepted, but also long to be free—Handful yearns for physical freedom from slavery while Sarah yearns for freedom from the constraints of society which prevent her from pursuing a vocation and demand her obedience to a traditional female role subservient to men. As Handful put it to Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.” Handful takes many risks to taste freedom, including sneaking out to assist Derek Vesey, a free black man and preacher who attempts to lead a slave rebellion in Charleston. The treatment of the slaves is brutal, but the slaves’ response is a testament to their strength, courage, and dignity.
The novel is filled with other rich characters, including Handful’s mother, Charlotte, who refuses to give up on the dream of being free and asserts her independence in every way she can, and Angelina, Sarah’s beautiful and rebellious younger sister, who takes up the cause of abolition alongside her sister.
The novel tells the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who surmount many social barriers by traveling around the country preaching abolition to women and later to men. They are threatened, ostracized and outlawed for their efforts. And the more they ponder the plight of the slaves, the more they feel their own constraints as women—unable to vote, unable to own property, and unable to be pursue a university education and profession. Thus, the fight for freedom from slavery also becomes a fight for women’s equality.
Prior to reading this novel, I was not familiar with the Grimké sisters’ trailblazing work in the early 1800s on behalf of freedom and equality for all. Although the novel is classified as historical fiction, the author hews closely to historical truth. If you enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s earlier bestselling book, The Secret Life of Bees, you are sure to like this one as well. ■