“Alternating between Sarah’s and Handful’s contrasting perspectives…allows Kidd to generate unstoppable narrative momentum as she explores the troubled terrain that lies between white and black women in a slaveholding society… The novel’s language can be as exhilarating as its powerful story… By humanizing these formidable women, The Invention of Wings furthers our essential understanding of what has happened among us as Americans – and why it still matters.”
—The Washington Post
Sue Monk Kidd’s powerful historical novel The Invention of Wings returns to the public’s consciousness the effective, famous and infamous abolitionist and feminist orators/authors, sisters Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké Weld (1805 – 1879). (See PBS’ People & Ideas: Angelina and Sarah Grimké.)
Born into a Charleston slaving-holding family that was widely known in the city’s upper levels of society, both girls would–in spite of a stern mother and a resolute father–evolve into outspoken ladies who would ultimately defy their kin, city, and church to speak out against slavery and discrimination against women.
As the PBS article notes, “The sisters’ public speaking and involvement in the political sphere drew condemnation from religious leaders and traditionalists who did not believe that it was a woman’s place to speak in public. The sisters soon found themselves fighting for equality of the sexes and women’s rights, following women like Sojourner Truth in linking the rights of blacks and women.”
The Invention of Wings shows the sisters’ (and Sarah’s Black maid Handful’s) struggles at a close, personal level as the women’s views about themselves and their places in the world evolve during the novel’s 1803 to 1838 time frame. This is the novel’s first great strength.
From Sarah’s perspective: “All things pass in the end, even the worst melancholy. I opened my dresser and pulled out the lava box that held my button. My eyes glazed at the sight of it, and this time I felt my spirit rise up to meet my will. I would not give up. I would err on the side of audacity. That was what I’d always done.”
From Handful’s perspective: “Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder.”
Its second great strength comes through the seamless blend of historical facts and characters and fictional characters and events. You realize how expertly this hand-in-glove fit was accomplished when you read the author’s note at the end of the book. (Kidd also provides a list of references.)
I became a fan of Sue Monk Kidd in 1996 when I read her The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine. I thought of that book again as I read The Invention of Wings. I does not surprise me that an author who wrote about her own escape from religious patriarchy would be drawn to two historical sisters who also took strong issue with the organized church, sexism and racism.
The Invention of Wings is a testament to a wonderful writer’s ability to put herself into the shoes of two unfortunately obscure civil rights and feminist leaders and bring them to back life again in a highly readable story.