The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
Faction rather than fiction
The novel is a hybrid between history and fiction, a crossbreed of two genres done very successfully. Some readers may find historical pieces tedious and a tiresome, demanding constant effort of focus. Wings starts slowly but soon the reader is so engaged, tedium occurs.
The historical tale engages the reader thoroughly, deeply and unrelentingly. The emotional gamut runs from joyous and uplifting to cruel and abhorrent drawing on familial love, friendship bonding and descriptive horror. The two female protagonists, Sarah and Handful, are alternately stars of their respective casts in the story, each presented as the lead in alternating chapters.
Sarah is the white woman ahead of her time, progressive in her thinking and anachronisitic in her intransigent society. Her society, cemented in values and principles of a bygone era, is on the verge of cataclysmic change and Sarah is one of the new era’s leading activists to the total dismay of her entire family.
Handful, Hetty, is the slave yearning to embody her mother’s revolutionary dreams of freedom from enslavement, escape from the bondage of the American South. She demonstrates her dedication to her mother’s ambitions with little acts of rebellion, each more drastic than the previous, first stealing lttle knick knacks from the mistress’ house, then forging slave travel passes and obtaining fake freed slave badges, finally climaxing with her learning to read and write. Each act of rebellion and defiance inching her closer to full freedom. Even the racks and disability causing incident of the “Wheel” only strengthens Hetty’s dreams of fulfilling her mothers dreams.
Soon Sarah bonds with Hetty in their mutual goal of total freedom for Hetty and abolition of slavery in America.
Each young woman matures adults determined and dedicated to achieving their mutual goal, each becoming stronger with age.
The tale has love and rejection, family rebellion, bondage and cruelty, pushing the many emotional buttons a good novel should. Wings does so.
No need for any spoiler alert, as the story reveals its intent long before the closing pages. How our protagonists proceed along their dedicated course is the engaging and suspenseful story, well written and grippingly told.
The Invention of Wings is romantic history, a colourful tale written in a polished and professional manner. It is the tale of human cruelty displayed by the cliched descriptions of the inhuman treatment of Negro slaves. The full enjoyment of the book is the reserve of history buffs but those with a romantic bent to their reading preferences.