Hetty "Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
Sometimes I just don't know what to say about a book that hasn't already been said. As per my usual M.O., I don't read reviews prior to reading most books. I read the synopsis and the back cover blurb and decide, from that, if I want to read it. I was alerted to a bit of flak about this particular novel but it did not deter me from wanting to read it.
The Invention of Wings tells the story of slavery and freedom through the eyes of two women- Sarah(based on historical figure, abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimke) and Hetty "Handful" Grimke, a slave whom is gifted to Sarah on her 11th birthday. Sarah finds the fact that she owns a slave to be abhorrent, and tries to give her back. Then tries to emancipate her, but her family, especially her father will not hear of it. "It's our way of life!" Later, her older sister Mary insinuates that God has given them the slaves to care for. Thus sets the foundation for the swinging pendulum between the life of a privileged woman who is sympathetic to the plight of the slaves in her family's possession and the slave girl who is living the daily recurring nightmare that is being owned.
Over the next three decades, the girls become friends, almost co-conspirators. Sarah teaches Hetty to read, an act that is blatantly against the law. In my opinion, Hetty becomes too comfortable in her position as Sarah's Hand Maid. On one occasion, when the family had been away for some time and unexpectedly returned, Sarah happened upon Hetty bathing in her copper tub. In fact, Hetty and her mother Charlotte took great risks and liberties, leaning heavily upon the fact that they'd been with the family for so long and the Missus(Mrs Gremke) would not likely sell them.
Woven into this story is the great talent of quilt-making and tapestry. Charlotte is the best seamstress in the south, and she and Hetty are kept busy making curtains and clothing for the Gremke family, and the allotment of clothing for each slave. Mauma's true talent, however, is story telling, but Mauma doesn't tell stories in words; she tells them through images sewn onto fabric squares, then stitched together into ornate quilts. These quilts are their history, from Africa to the present and beyond.
There are a few eye rolling moments. Before I knew that Sarah and her little sister Nina were based on real women, I thought the incessant and increasingly bold preaching against slavery to be a bit much. I would not imagine two young girls, daughters of a South Carolina judge to be so vocal about a plight that is not their own. They hold true to their beliefs, even going so far as to become Quakers because of their opposition to slavery and commitment to wearing 'slave labor free' fabrics. Even among the Quakers they become radicals and outcasts and garner fame from traveling the country making speeches that rail against owning people as property and encourage emancipation.
This book reminds me very much of The Kitchen House, not really in story trajectory, but similar themes along the lines of a kinship between slave and slave owner. Considering The Kitchen House was one of my most favorite reads, I consider it a high compliment to liken The Invention of Wings to such a great work of fiction.
I truly enjoyed this book, as much as I enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees and I'm already looking forward to the next release from Sue Monk Kidd.
View all my reviews