The Invention of Wings: A Novel
by Sue Monk Kidd
Sue Monk Kidd, author of the widely read The Secret Life of Bees, explains in an afterword to The Invention of Wings that she knew she wanted to write a novel about sisters, but who those sisters would be and what the setting would be in which they would exist was a mystery to her until she attended an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum about women who have made important contributions to history and stumbled upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke. She had never heard of them before, although they haled from her own hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. After reading about the two women at the exhibition, however, Kidd was intrigued and began to dig deeper. And so The Invention of Wings was born.
I had never heard of the Grimke sisters, either, but apparently they were at one time two of the most well-known – and notorious – women in the United States. Born into a large, wealthy plantation family in the early nineteenth century, the Grimkes were raised when slavery epitomized the Southern way of life. Both sisters, having witnessed firsthand the cruelties of slavery, abhorred the institution and eventually became pariahs in their community as they became more and more vocal as abolitionists. As adults, they left Charleston and traveled the states speaking out against slavery and for equal rights, not only among races, but gender as well. Sarah and Angelina Grimke thus became two of the most famous abolitionists and feminists of their time.
In The Invention of Wings, Kidd creates a fictional account of the Grimke sisters’ lives, as well as the lives of a cast of supporting characters, based on historical fact. The story is narrated alternately by Sarah Grimke and a slave by the name of Hetty, aka “Handful,” who was presented to Sarah as a handmaid on her eleventh birthday. While Sarah Grimke apparently really was given a young slave girl named Hetty as a gift for her eleventh birthday, historical records indicate that Hetty died in childhood. Kidd’s novel is an imagining of what might have been had Hetty lived. The novel spans several decades – from Sarah’s eleventh birthday through middle age.
I loved this book. I actually listened to it on audio, so it took me a while to get through it, but it was such a treat to listen to this epic, sweeping story play out. The characters and scenes are so vivid. While it’s certainly not the first novel I’ve read that addresses slavery, it doesn’t feel redundant or stale by any means. The horrors of people owning other human beings like property, and literally valuing them at a fraction of “whole humans” and treating them accordingly . . . it’s a heavy weight on the conscience of America.
A must read.