The Invention of Wings
“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone”
Bob Dylan said it best. After the long slog of a punishing winter, this spring has been luxuriant for denizens of Alexandria and the greater DC area. It has been time to revel in the sunshine and to plan upcoming summer breaks. The times they are a-changing in the simplest of seasonal ways. In picking up a summer novel, you may want one that sweeps you up and only puts you back down at the end of a quick, satisfying read: a trip that takes you through an important piece of social history that influenced major changes in our country. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is just such a book.
“There was a time in Africa the people could fly.” Hetty Handful Grimkė hears her mother, a slave named Charlotte, tell her stories handed down from Africa while they work for a prominent planter-class family at the turn of the nineteenth century in Charleston. Her mother implants seeds of future hope in her as she grows older. At the same time, she tries in vain to protect Handful when possible and acclimate her to the increased demands placed on an adult slave. Handful’s first turning point occurs when she “graduates” from doing random work. At the age of ten, the mistress of the house presents her to the eleven-year-old Grimkė daughter, Sarah, as a present, her own waiting maid.
Sarah Grimkė, the other prominent character in this book, is an unusual, intelligent child. Traumatized at the age of four when she accidentally saw a slave whipping in the back yard, her voice comes and goes. At times she stutters and can almost not speak her true emotions, although she loves reading philosophy and history, a pastime not then suitable for women. When she is offered Hetty, it takes her a moment to bring out words and bellow in front of a room of party guests “I cannot accept.” Handful, perhaps at the idea of being a possession to be handed over, has an accident in front of the roomful of women. Sarah is sent to her room for disobeying her mother and for striking against the cultural mores of the time, which gives the upset Handful a glimmer of an idea that not all white folks believe in her subjugation. Sarah teaches Handful to read before they are both caught and made to stop, but Handful gains a valuable skill that will aid her when necessary.
The two little girls, and their respective journeys into womanhood, offer provocative views into the positions of slave women and women in the Southern upper classes at the time. Both are suppressed and experience the inevitable disappointments from the realities that stand like tall brick walls against their progress and youthful aspirations as white and black women. While Hetty’s frustrations and worries are in almost every way more severe, she, with the help of her mother, keeps her mind free from the prevailing notion that she is nothing but a possession by working on her mother’s quilts. Her mother’s story quilt defies the idea that slaves should not read and write by telling Charlotte’s story in stitched pictures. Her truth is displayed in beautiful coded pictures for those with the skill to see it, and she teaches her daughter to stand on her own and find any way possible to be free.
Sarah, who wants to be a lawyer, has her hopes dashed when her father and brothers laugh at her dreams and declare them impossible. She re-channels her desire for social change and takes care of her young sister, Nina, or Angelina, doing what she can to instill her own then-radical values that include believing in female education and the abolition of slavery. Her journey parallels Handful’s as they both become involved in important social movements and incidents of the time. Sarah and Nina eventually shake off their Anglican roots, becoming Quakers and moving to Pennsylvania, since Quakers did not accept slavery and had women ministers. They then take gradual steps to promote women’s rights and abolition to help Handful, and others like her, become free. Handful, on the other hand, secretly comes into contact with the former slave Denmark Vesey, who wants to start an insurrection to free slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, and beyond. Eventually Handful needs significant help from her childhood companion, Sarah, who does what she can to provide it.
While The Invention of Wings is a piece of fiction, Sarah and Nina Grimkė were two real abolitionists and feminists guided north by their moral compasses in the early nineteenth century and told not to come back to Charleston, where they could be abused and arrested. The very complicated friendship and relationship between Sarah and Handful, a mostly invented character, show how human kindness and ingenuity can and did overcome barriers erected by even the most horrible of cultural institutions. The Invention of Wings is a lovely novel: a fast-moving page-turner about ideas taking shape at a time when the South seemed trapped in the stagnant economic and moral quagmire of slavery. It lifts a reader up with the wings that both women seek and feel are their entitlement: wings to fly away and seek their destinies.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer