Friday, December 20, 2013

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This new novel by the acclaimed author of The Secret Life of Bees tells the unlikely stories of two very different women in 19th century Charleston.  Spanning more than thirty years, Kidd reveals the lives of Sarah Grimké: middle child in a large, wealthy South Carolina family and Hetty Handful Grimké: a slave owned by the Grimké family.  We begin in 1803 around the time of Sarah’s eleventh birthday.  The young girl is presented with two very different gifts: a chance to graduate from the nursery into her very own bedroom and a slave for her own personal maid.  Immediately Sarah tries to refuse the second “gift” from her mother.  This only ends in Sarah embarrassing her mother in front of a bunch of guests and having to write out many apology letters.
Late that same evening, Sarah sneaks into her father’s study to copy out a manumission document in order to free Hetty Handful outright.  Her father is a very important lawyer.  Surely he will carry out her wishes? Sarah remarks “What could Father do but make Hetty’s freedom as legal and binding as her ownership?  I was following a code of law he’d fashioned himself!” But when Sarah finds the document torn in two and lying in front of her bedroom door the next morning, she knows that helping Handful obtain her freedom will be more difficult than she’d imagined. 

Kidd allows us to see the two girls grow in friendship though their backgrounds are very different.  But Kidd also allows the reader a glimpse into the horror and brutality of slavery.  As we get to know Handful, we see that her mother Charlotte has dreams of freedom.  Though the woman is an expert seamstress and clearly the most valuable slave in the Grimké home, she is not content.  After years of bowing, scraping, and saving money from odd jobs outside the household, Charlotte disappears.  Handful, while heartbroken that she has been left behind, hopes that her mother is living somewhere as a free woman. 
Sarah grows and changes as the years go by.  She begs to become the godmother of her youngest sister, Nina, and her influence on the child is very apparent.  While Sarah quietly changes her religious views and begins to study abolition, Nina is a girl of outspoken and firm conviction.  After both women are jilted by potential husbands, the two join forces and become the first female voices for abolition; travelling all over the northern states speaking to other women about their views. 

Kidd has found an interesting way to bring the very real Grimke sisters to life.  Readers who enjoy historical fiction will not be disappointed in Kidd’s third novel.  TheInvention of Wings is available everywhere on January 7th, 2014.