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A Novel Takes Flight: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

When I was in graduate school studying U.S. history with a concentration in race relations and racial violence in the South, I remember making note of the names Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the antebellum abolitionist sisters from Charleston, South Carolina. Their story intrigued me: sisters of privilege who had turned against the system of enslavement from which they benefited, and had become its outspoken denunciators. They’d scandalized their family, Charleston, and much of the country in the mid-1800s, when women barely were allowed to speak before public audiences, much less vote. After I graduated, I didn’t forget about the Grimkés, but life got busy, as it does, and I never made time to learn more about them.

Now, thanks to Sue Monk Kidd, I have. The Invention of Wings is based on the well-documented lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, tracing their paths from their childhoods in a wealthy Charleston family to independence in Quaker Philadelphia, to virtual exile from both communities as they took to the lecture circuit with their first-hand opinions about the evils of enslavement.

As Kidd portrays her, Sarah Grimké defies the system at every opportunity. When her parents “gave” her Hetty, a.k.a. Handful, for her eleventh birthday and refused to let Sarah emancipate her, she gives Handful as much freedom as possible and promises Handful’s own mother that one day she would do everything she could to help Handful be free. Meanwhile Sarah, the daughter of a judge, teaches the enslaved child to read and others in “Colored Sunday School” to sing the Alphabet Song, in direct defiance of local law.

She dreams of studying the law and chafes under women’s exclusion from the profession. Eventually, in her writing and her public speaking, Sarah will shape her belief in equality for women and for African Americans into effective arguments far ahead of their times. The Grimké sisters are credited with pioneering thought on Woman Suffrage, and cited as influences on Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Kidd smoothly weaves considerable historical research into her novel, explaining in her Author’s Note where she drew the lines and what she invented. As a writer and historian, I found her methods credible. Of course The Invention of Wings is fiction, and should not be considered a history or a biography of the Grimkés’ lives. Absent are the notes, bibliography, and analysis of a scholarly work. But well-researched and well-written fiction can enliven the past for readers in ways even the best-written history does not always accomplish. Not to mention that history monographs are unlikely to reach Oprah’s Book Club.

Some readers of The Invention of Wings will dislike the racially imbalanced power in evidence throughout and especially at the end of the book. Like movie goers, readers are right to be concerned when African American characters need white help to achieve their goals; such plots imply lack of agency and power on the part of the enslaved. This criticism was leveled at the recent film “Twelve Years a Slave,” in which Solomon Northup finally escaped enslavement with the help of a white Canadian man. But the fact is that a white man did help Northup regain his freedom in 1853. A central tragedy of this country is the white privilege on which it continues to be based. But another fact is that many with white skin recognize this injustice and do what may be within their power to rectify small pieces of it. Like Northup’s Canadian helper, the Grimkés did what they could, both in their lives and as Kidd’s fictional characters.

Kidd freely admits to inventing the relationships between the Grimkés and the individuals enslaved by their family. But she also takes every opportunity to portray and express confidence in the independent power that many, many African Americans could and did achieve, even under the heel of such a brutal system, like clandestine sales of handmade items to save money for freedom, escape and travel for days and miles without detection by tracking dogs and roving slave patrols, and maintaining dignity and self-worth in the face of constant humiliation. She even weaves freedman Denmark Vesey and his extensive plans for rebellion into the fabric of the story, connecting Vesey to the Grimkés by more than just their simultaneous residence in Charleston.

The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd’s first novel, charmed and fascinated me, with its story of a white young girl taken in by African American sisters and taught to harvest honey and to love herself in the process. We can’t shy away from the ugly sides of American life, whether it’s the domestic abuse at the heart of The Secret Life of Bees, or centuries of enslavement based on skin color. By giving voice to the Grimkés and by inventing rich and resourceful African American characters determined to decide their own destinies, Kidd excoriates the slave system, much as the Grimkés did. In the process, she has created characters, both real and invented, that captivate and educate readers, and now will spring always to mind in the context of enslavement, antebellum Charleston, and that all-too-rare breed: articulate and outspoken Southern abolitionists.

(c) 2014 Stephanie Harp

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (NY: Viking, 2014. 373 pp. $27.95, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-670-02478-0)

In Maine: BookMarc’s, Bangor; Left Bank Books, Belfast; Blue Hill Books, Blue Hill.

Online: ABE Books, Better World Books

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