Sue Monk Kidd, who received so much attention with her debut The Secret Life of Bees, has written another novel set in the South focusing on relationships between white and black women. In this case, it’s a story set in the early 1800s while slavery was still legal. This book actually is based on real-life women, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who were raised in the South by slave-holding parents and went on to become fierce abolitionists and early proponents of women’s rights.
The Invention of Wings revolves around Sarah, the older sister, and alternates between her story and that of the fictional slave Hetty, or Handful, who was given to her as a maid when the girls were young. Sarah is very uncomfortable with slavery from a young age, after seeing a slave whipped, and she doesn’t want to own one, even as a young girl. But she has no choice; she has no power to free her. We learn about Sarah’s dashed romantic hopes and her realization that she must act on her convictions. We learn about Handful’s life, including her relationship with her mother, who defies her owners left and right (mostly unbeknownst to them) just to feel a small bit of freedom and autonomy. The way slaves were treated as property, not as human beings, and the slights they had to live with every moment, are examined, as well as the times they were beaten or otherwise tortured for even slight infractions. None of it is surprising or new, but it is freshly a reminder of the horrors perpetrated in our past and the ways that human beings even now can justify base treatment of others.
I found the story interesting particularly because it did give me new knowledge about real women who fought to make things better for all. I think I enjoyed it more than I expected to: honestly, I don’t read a lot of the books Oprah recommends because they’re disproportionately so heavy and depressing. This was certainly not cheery and light, but it was inspiring and informative while not being difficult to read. I cared about the characters and was interested in reading at the end more about Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Just sad that Handful wasn’t real! The writing style was lovely and the pieces all came together nicely.
Rated: Moderate, for one use of strong language, some brief sexual content and several scenes, with just mild detail, of violence toward slaves.