The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd*****

theinventionofwingsTwo of today’s hottest political topics have to do with equality. As we follow and sometimes participate in the Black Lives Matter movement, along with the fight to keep Planned Parenthood funded and maintain a woman’s right to own her body and say what happens to it, this elegantly crafted work of historical fiction could not, strangely enough, be more timely. The Invention of Wings is a fictional biography of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, abolitionists and feminists, the first to make screaming headlines by speaking out publicly decades before women would see the right to vote, and decades before the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. As is essential in dealing with the rights of then-enslaved African-Americans in the south, Kidd adds an additional character, a slave named Hetty, written alternately with the Sarah’s story. I say it is essential to do so; this is because it is wrong to write about the marginalization and subjugation of an entire people, and then not include a representative of that group into the plot. As usual, Kidd doesn’t disappoint.

Much as I love historical fiction, one thing that makes me a little crazy is wondering where the research ends and fiction commences. In her afterword, the author lets us know specifically what is true and what isn’t. She even gives us a brief bibliography to pursue if we feel moved to do so; the only other historical fiction writer I know of that does this is Laurence Yep, my hands-down favorite YA author. Thus, Kidd places herself in outstanding company.

The Grimke sisters were born into the elite planter class, a tiny minority among Caucasians in the South, and in the very belly of the beast: Charleston, South Carolina. Partially because of the tremendous brutality meted out to the plantation’s slaves right before her tiny eyes there at home, Sarah Grimke grew up opposed to slavery. As a much older sister, she had a formative role helping her mother raise Angelina, who also became a fierce, uncompromising abolitionist.

It is one thing to take up a cause that is small but in which one has a support base. For the Grimkes, there was nothing. Eventually both had to move north for their own safety. And although, as a history major and a feminist of the 1970’s I had read about the Grimke sisters many times, it is within the well-crafted, deeply thoughtful, well researched pages of this novel that they first came to life for me.

Hetty, the slave depicted within these pages, actually existed, but the story Kidd writes for her is entirely fictional. The real Hetty died before Sarah was grown. Still, her character felt as real to me, and was easily as well developed as either of the Grimke sisters. Hetty is not passive, not waiting to be “set” free. She understands that the only freedom she is likely to receive will be what she can do for herself. A nice touch Kidd adds is in making Hetty one of the children of Denmark Vesey, the free African-American that attempted to organize and lead a slave revolt.

Everything here is carefully constructed and absorbing. Kidd has long demonstrated formidable talent in constructing well developed characters and vivid settings; the difference here (as opposed to The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid’s Chair, the two others of hers I have read) is the research involved. As with everything else, she blends fact and detail into a well spun tale.

I should add here that the literacy level required to deal with this text is higher than most. Don’t toss it out there for your average middle schooler to read, because it will prove too difficult. Because of the way she builds her story, brick by brick, the pace doesn’t really pick up until about halfway into the book. This isn’t a rip-roaring page turner; it’s a series of quiet nights by the fire, or curled up on your favorite window seat, or by the side of your bed. Give it the time it deserves.
Though I got my copy from the Seattle Public Library, I consider this title worth the cover price. Highly recommended.

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