The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a well researched work of historical fiction, one, to an extent, that rights a grievous wrong. It’s the territory of fiction to be able to do that: make things right. Yet the book also tells the read story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two courageous Southern women who challenged two social aberrations that identified the first century of this great nation. They exposed the horrors of and fought against slavery. They worked to bring the right to vote to women.
I don’t know how old I was when I realized that our country had once allowed the ownership of human beings and had done so with a blind eye toward its violent abuse and stringent governmental regulations that made fighting slavery a hugely risky endeavor. I was very young. I was horrified. The more I learned about slavery and how it came about – the slave ships, the uprisings, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War – the more I questioned how decent people could do the heinous things once done to black slaves. Knowledge of slavery (and the internment of Japanese Americans’ during World War II, and the betrayal of American Indian treaties, among other awful but legal situations) fractured my sense of the absolute apex of righteousness that I’d felt belonged to the United States. To learn that I’d been so very wrong about us, even in history more than a hundred years old, made me begin to question our entire sense of humanity. Did we truly have any?
I learned, eventually, that our country overcame many instances of social and economic injustice, that continuing to right injustices is what makes us a better nation than many. We don’t give up even when we discover the depth and breadth of hateful, prejudicial attitudes and the reprehensible behaviors of some citizens of our nation. We don’t give up; we keep trying to right the wrongs. I’ve always hoped this country would continue the struggle to endow the rights of all men.
The Invention of Wings tells the story of two sisters about whom I’d known nothing, but who were famous in their own time, the 1830’s, for their rebellion against standards of society that allowed enslavement. Thirty years before the beginning of the Civil War, these two women campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Thousands of people heard and respected them. Thousands of others jeered and threatened them.
Kidd’s well researched book begins with Sarah Grimke’s eleventh birthday. The child of a wealthy plantation owner in Charleston, South Carolina, she lives a privileged life though she despises her mother’s vile disposition. Her birthday gift is a slave, a child adorned with satin ribbons on her undernourished body. She is named Hetty but called “Handful.” Handful was a real person but one who did not live much beyond that notorious birthday when Sarah, disgusted by ownership of a human being, refused to accept the slave as her property. The real Handful was whipped because Sarah taught her to read and apparently died very young.
In Kidd’s book, Handful survives and subtly defies her white owners and the Southern culture that not only condones slavery but insists on it. Her mother, Charlotte, tells the child a story about when Africans had wings and could fly, and that someday all those of African descent will regain their wings. Charlotte secretly makes a quilt, a long worked on project that showcases her life’s most important moments. The quilt is her freedom, but its existence is a dangerous act of rebellion. When Charlotte disappears, only the quilt remains to remind Handful of all that is possible within one’s imagination. Because of Handful’s rich inner life, she is in some ways more free than Sarah, who must conform to her community’s standards lest not only she, but her family as well, suffer.
Sarah wants to become a lawyer like her beloved father but her goal is considered inappropriate for her station; Southern women can achieve no such status as it’s intended only for men. Instead, she and her younger sister, Angelina, travel north where they write pamphlets and give speeches about the horrors and injustices of slavery. They also promote women’s suffrage. Sarah draws huge audiences who are captivated by her passion. One of her written treatises was in fact the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sarah’s life was dedicated to righting these egregious wrongs, and she forfeited love and marriage because of her commitment to her causes.
Kidd’s book shows how four women, two white and two black, fought against the powers of their time. It tells of the horrors of slavery in unvarnished, often horrific images. It creates an intellectual and spiritual scaffold for implementing social justice. It gives me hope that terrible circumstances can be endured and that goodness will overcome evil.
My favorite line from the book is this: Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. Yet from this paucity of decency, Charlotte managed to give her beloved daughter, Handful, a sense of freedom and hope, that there had been a better life once and might be again.
The Invention of Wings was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction
Other books that were serious contenders for I:
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
I look forward to learning about your favorite I fiction books.
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Books