Sue Monk Kidd's debut, published in 2002, revolved around a series of pivotal relationships in a woman's life: mother-daughter, sister-sister, friend-friend, all set against the backdrop of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s South. That novel, The Secret Life of Bees, became a mega bestseller and a very successful motion picture. Since then Kidd has generated an impressive body of work.
Her newest novel revisits the same themes and utilizes a similar backdrop as Bees (albeit a century and a half removed). Encompassing the years 1803-1838, The Invention of Wings is a historical novel recounting the relationship between Sarah Grimke, real-life daughter of a Charleston, SC slave-owning family and Hetty, usually called "Handful." Although a creation of Monk Kidd's imagination, Handful's character is based upon an actual slave given to Sarah as a birthday present when they were just eleven and ten years, old respectively.
As these two remarkable women forge their somewhat uneasy friendship through the years, both yearn for greater things than fate has handed them: Handful is a piece of property and Sarah is imprisoned by the limitations her society places on women.
Warily learning to trust each other, they deal with pain, loss, frustration and tragedy, eventually arriving at a crossroads from which both know there is no turning back. For Sarah this pivotal point is the realization that she can no longer be part of a system that treats people as commodities, and if she is to be true to her convictions she must leave home, family and everything she has ever known of her comfortable life. For Handful, it is the inescapable truth that she would rather be dead than endure one more moment of servitude. "I want freedom more than the next breath," she finally tells her half sister Sky. "We'll leave ridin' on our coffins if we have to We're leavin; or die tryin."
The novel embraces a cast of memorable characters including Handful's mother, Charlotte, the slave seamstress. Charlotte refuses to let her indomitable spirit be cowed and encourages her daughter, even from beyond the grave, to always reach higher. "Mauma always used to sayYou got to figure out which end of the needle you goin' to bethe one that's fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth," Handful remembers, as she finally comes to understand exactly what her mother meant.
Sarah's strong-willed younger sister, Angelina, twelve years her junior, joins her in her exile. Their support of the twin causes of abolition and women's rights through fiery writing and public speaking propels both of them to the public spotlight.
The Invention of Wings features additional historical figures: William Lloyd Garrison, controversial president of the American Anti-Slavery Society; Quaker preacher Lucretia Mott, fiercely devoted in her quiet way to the Grinke sisters and their causes; African-American Denmark Vesey, leader of an inspired but ultimately doomed slave uprising; and Theodore Weld, passionate anti-slavery crusader and equally devoted to the captivating Angelina.
The relationships between these characters and their struggles both real and imagined bring a deeply polarized time in American history vividly to life. This is a page-turning narrative, with intricate plot twists, by a truly riveting storyteller.
This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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