On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimké’s parents gave her a present: a ten-year-old slave named Hetty “Handful.” This was the norm for polite genteel society in Charleston in 1803. Sarah despises slavery even at this early age and unsuccessfully attempts to reject the gift. Thus begins Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, “The Invention of Wings.” The book is the fictionalized history of Sarah Grimké, who along with her sister, was at the forefront of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements in the early 19th century. Although Hetty was an actual slave, Kidd’s account is mostly invention. The story follows the lives of these two women over the course of 35 years and their yearning and striving for freedom – Hetty from the chains of slavery and Sarah from the constraints of being a woman in the 19th century.
The two share a secret friendship while keeping up appearances of master and slave. After the discovery that Sarah has taught Hetty to read (a criminal offense in antebellum South Carolina), both are punished: Sarah is banned from her father’s library and his books — Hetty is whipped.
The title of the book stems from Hetty’s mother Charlotte who told Hetty that her people used to have wings in the old country, and they soared like blackbirds. That magic was stolen when Hetty’s grandmother was captured by a slave trader and sent to the Americas. But someday, she promised, they would get their wings back. Charlotte was a seamstress and her signature design was black triangles, wings that she appliquéd to everything. Charlotte was stubborn, clever, and above all – a mother. As time goes by, Charlotte goes on daring escapades over the wall of the master’s property, but it’s only to earn enough money to hopefully buy freedom for her and Hetty. No matter what happens to her, even after an insidiously cruel punishment handed down by the woman of the house, Charlotte persists, and she never ever lets her daughter’s mind succumb to the fate of lifelong slavery. She pushes hope through each pass of the needle and thread, through life and death.
Throughout the novel, Kidd also weaves in several historical figures such as Denmark Vesey – a freed slave who tried to instigate a massive slave rebellion in South Carolina; Lucretia Mott – a Quaker abolitionist and women’s rights activist; and William Lloyd Garrison – an abolitionist, suffragist, editor for The Liberator, and founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and many more.
The Invention of Wings is an intensely thought-provoking and emotionally stimulating story that touches upon a dark spot in American history. The cruelty of men is openly shown through the horrific enslavement and dreadful tortures of their fellow humans, and ratified by the bible they clung to with ferocity. The will of women was shut down by law, society, and religion. The pain and suffering felt, by slave women most of all, are keenly perceived through the beautiful and often poetic words of Kidd. On the lighter side, there is beauty, love, friendship, courage, and the iron will of women.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “Take Five” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 6, discussing The Invention of Wings. Join the monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, July 6 at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague for refreshments, snacks, beverages, camaraderie, and discussion; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets all year long.