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Book review: 'The Invention of Wings'

Elizabeth BrownThe Christian Science Monitor

In early 19th-century America, it was illegal for whites to teach slaves to read, to help them escape, and -- in some places -- it was illegal even to speak out against slavery. In South Carolina, Sarah Grimké tried them all.

She started in Charleston with her own family’s slaves and then moved north, where she wrote and lectured widely on abolition and women’s rights. According to Sue Monk Kidd, whose new novel The Invention of Wings imagines the personal life behind this historical figure, Ms. Grimké was the most widely read anti-slavery writer before Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose rousing novel "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" drew heavily from Grimké’s firsthand reports of slave life.

The real Grimké suffered ridicule, ostracism, and loneliness, all of which Kidd portrays convincingly in this novel she refers to as “not a thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimké’s history, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” She’s succeeded brilliantly. Yet equally brilliant is her imagining of the other voice that tells this story, that of Grimké’s slave girl, Hetty, or “Handful” as her slave mother calls her. The book alternates between short chapters told from each girl/woman’s point of view from 1803 to 1838.

The story begins on Sarah’s 11th birthday when her mother, in view of the Charleston elite, presents Sarah with her very own slave/handmaid, Handful, who sleeps on the floor outside Sarah’s bedroom door, ready to fulfill her new mistress’s whims. Sarah resists, tells her mother she doesn’t want -- or need -- a slave. She creeps into her father’s study -- where she spends hours reading and discussing Latin, law, and philosophy with her brothers -- and pens a document to emancipate Handful. Her parents are horrified. They punish her, but she persists. She covertly teaches Handful to read, but when a fellow slave tattles that Handful has written letters outside in the mud, the girls are harshly punished. Sarah’s father cuts off her access to his library and Handful is whipped.  

Yet the two of them keep pushing against their confines: Sarah takes over the rearing of her baby sister, Nina, and instills seditious ideas such as the evils of slavery and the possibility of disobeying their slave-beating parents.

Handful, meanwhile, grows up in the shadow of her slave mother, Charlotte, the Grimkés’ seamstress. Charlotte sneaks out of the Grimké house regularly to earn extra money sewing and to have an affair with a free black man, Vesey, who’d bought his freedom with lottery winnings. Charlotte sews the stories of her African ancestors into a quilt and stuffs it full of the money she hopes will someday suffice to buy their freedom. When Charlotte disappears, Handful takes over the sneaking around and earning extra money, even stealing ammunition for an insurrection planned by Vesey. Handful is caught and beaten so severely she’s crippled for life. Like Sarah, she persists: With her cane she slips out the Grimké window with her forged “passing papers” that allow her to walk the sidewalks of Charleston and then slips back in with jobs and cash.

They’re in their twenties by now -- Sarah and Handful -- and Sarah is sent to Philadelphia to tend her hospitalized father. As Sarah says goodbye to Handful and bemoans having to leave her home, Handful is conflicted: She feels sorry for her white mistress and friend, but she is also acutely aware that her own station -- and that of her fellow slaves -- is so untenable it feels ridiculous to extend sympathy for Sarah’s meager woe. With measured emotion -- and not a hint of melodrama -- author Kidd limns the truth of Handful’s difficult ambivalence:

“….I told her, ‘I’m sorry,’ and the minute it left my mouth, I knew it was coming from the true mind that was me, not the mind for the master to see. I was sorry for her. Sarah had jimmied herself into my heart, but at the same time, I hated the eggshell color of her face, the helpless way she looked at me all the time. She was kind to me and she was part of everything that stole my life.”

Both Sarah and Handful enter new phases after Sarah leaves: Sarah falls in love, embraces the Quaker faith, feels pulled to another calling, and each time bumps against a new impediment. She teams up with Lucretia Mott and other early suffragists. Back home, Handful discovers more of her mama’s secrets -- some in the quilt, others even more surprising -- and always tries to find a way to become free.

By the end, the novel's characters are poised for a new adventure -- ready to try those “wings” they’ve been working on all their lives. It’s sad when a book like this ends, but Kidd leaves us with hope -- not to mention gratitude -- for the intrepid pioneers of their time.

Elizabeth Brown is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, where this review first appeared. Used with permission.