Sarah Grimké, who is the main character in The Invention of Wings, was a very real person. Born in 1792, she was the second eldest daughter (from a family of 14!) of a wealthy plantation owner in South Carolina. She died in 1873, having become an outspoken abolitionist and feminist. During her lifetime, along with her youngest sister Angelina, she wrote pamphlets, had articles published in newspapers, and spoke to gatherings ranging from a handful of listeners to audiences that numbered in the hundreds. She refused to drop her fight for women’s rights (she felt women were locked into their own form of servitude) in order to concentrate solely on the abolishing of slavery, and was an influential figure to other activists such as Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.
Yet award winning author Sue Monk Kidd, who grew up in Charleston and often drove past the Grimké sisters’ unmarked house, had no idea who Sarah Grimké was. It wasn’t until she attended an art installation in New York that honored over 1,000 influential women that Ms. Kidd encountered the names Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and noted that they were from her hometown. Intrigued – and perhaps spurred on by a “vague notion that I wanted to write about two sisters” (as per the Author’s Note to The Invention of Wings) – she began to learn more about these sisters; from that chance “meeting”, The Invention of Wings was born.
Although Angelina figures largely in the later chapters in the book, this is really Sarah’s story – Sarah’s, and Hetty’s, the slave girl who was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday. Whereas Sarah’s life is fairly well documented, Hetty is not a real person, nor is she based on anyone in particular – there simply is not enough in the public record to tie a character in this book to a flesh and blood individual. But what is known about the slaves from the actual Grimké plantation – mentions in diaries, plantation notes, writs of sale, disciplinary notices – has been used as much as possible in making Hetty as honest a depiction of a young house slave in pre-Civil War South Carolina as possible.
It starts with her name – Hetty. That is the name that the Grimkés know her as, but in the slave quarters and among her own people, the slight young girl who could be “full of sass” to her Aunt-Sister was known as Handful.
I was a handful. That’s not how I got my name, though. Handful was my basket name. The master and missus, they did all the proper naming, but a mauma would look on her baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her, something about what he baby looked like, what day of the week it was, what the weather was doing, or just how the world seemed on that day. My mauma’s basket name was Summer, but her proper name was Charlotte. She had a brother whose basket name was Hardtime. People think I make that up, but it’s as true as it can be.
If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma. Master Grimke named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how was born too soon, and she called me Handful.
The “chapters” in the book are marked by alternating voices – first Hetty’s, then Sarah’s, then back to Hetty’s – and sections are set apart at six year intervals, following the two as they grow and develop. Sometimes the actions intertwine, and the reader sees events from both viewpoints, especially when the two are girls. Other times, especially as time progresses and Sarah is allowed liberty of movement that Hetty certainly is not, the events and emotions, the angst and the motivations, lie solely with the privileged plantation daughter or with the sharp witted slave girl. This back and forth narrative is very effective in allowing the reader to gain a better understanding of plantation – and Southern – life, and the huge toll it took to keep it functioning, both financially and culturally.
Sarah is a smart, kind girl, who plans to follow her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer. She has been told that she has an aptitude for the law, and has a better mind for debate than any of her brothers. She does not see the fact that there are no women lawyers to be an insurmountable obstacle – until it is. So, too, are all of her efforts to divest herself of any personal ties of being a slave owner rebuffed and disallowed. She tries to free Hetty as soon as the slave girl is given to her – her first lesson in the inability of females to have any personal power at that time in history. As time progresses, we see Sarah alternate between defiant and hopeful at being able to effect change for herself and for others, and utter despair at being stymied at every turn, by both external pressures and her own conflicting desires between freedom and convention.
But the book really shines in the chapters where Hetty speaks. Whereas Sarah’s intentions may be continually thwarted by her role in society, she at least has the chance to effect a change, personally and publically. At a price, yes, but she has opportunity. And she has comfort, and mobility and an education. Hetty has none of those. Her entire life is strictly controlled, regulated, and at the whim of others who think of her as nothing more than property – a line of inventory in a statement of plantation holdings. Yet Hetty has spirit – sass – and a sense of self given to her by her mauma, who was herself a cleverly bit of hidden chaos in a world that felt it could maintain order by fear, intimidation and privilege. Hetty, her mother, and other slaves who become familiar in the pages of this book find ways to survive and, in small ways, to fight back against that forces that refuse to acknowledge them.
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”
My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. She looked at my face, how it flowed with sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”
Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.”
I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.
Next to the pathos of Hetty’s situation and the pure gorgeousness of the language in which she expresses herself so effectively, against the way that she and her mauma find ways to hold on to their own sense of worth and family against so many obstacles in their way, Sarah’s constant back and forth about her own situation gets somewhat tedious. Of course, the author is somewhat constrained by facts when writing about Sarah Grimké since her story is set – where she goes, what she does and when – but it still feels that there is a bit too much back-and-forth in Sarah’s tale, a lot of movement without enough substance.
However, if Sue Monk Kidd’s research into the lives of black slaves in the South before the Civil War is correct – and one has to assume it is, given the reputation of the author and the fact that the book was chosen to be part of “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0” – then this book should be read by anyone who wishes to get a glimpse into this part of our undeniable American heritage. It will be enlightening, heart-rending, and uplifting, no matter your age, race or background, not just because it’s a great story, but because it’s foundation is in the truth.