Sue Monk Kidd took readers back to South Carolina in the middle of the twentieth century in her hugely successful book, “The Secret Life of Bees.” In her newest novel, “The Invention of Wings” (2014), she once again returns to her home state but now to the early 1800s to weave a tale of privilege, enslavement and building a life in spite of the odds.
The story is primarily set on the Grimké property in Charleston, where the affluent family is part of the elite, slave-owning society. For their middle daughter Sarah’s 11th birthday, they give her a special present — Hetty, the 10-year-old daughter of their enslaved seamstress, to be Sarah’s personal property. The skinny little girl’s body is wrapped in purple ribbon and Sarah is horrified. She had been seriously affected by witnessing violence towards family slaves so receiving this “gift” is the beginning of the young girl’s lifelong battle with her family, rigorous defenders of their “way of life,” the socially polite term for slave ownership.
Sarah and Hetty (who’d been given the nickname Handful by her mother) tell us the story of their long relationship in alternating chapters. Their voices are rich with details that paint a picture of the two extraordinarily different lives, lived just yards away from one another.
Sarah talks about loving to read her father’s books in his library but when it’s discovered that she is teaching Handful to read, she is forbidden to ever enter again. She overhears the men in her family mocking a plan being circulated to free the slaves and send them back to Africa and discovers that she wants to be part of emancipation efforts.
Handful’s life is lived in fear of the punishments doled out by the family. One day she sneaks a look at a ledger in Mr. Grimké’s desk showing the worth of his belongings and there she finds the value of each of the slaves. Handful, her mother, the elderly cook and others are listed below the water trough, the wheelbarrow and the bushel of flint corn. She must remind herself daily what she learned from the Negro preacher: “I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me.”
But as Kidd has said in an interview, “Handful and Sarah are both imprisoned in their own particular way.” The most obvious, of course, is Handful who is locked in and owned by the family. Yet Sarah, who is bright and curious about her father’s work as a lawyer, is readied only for domestic life where she will be considered the property of her husband. “The truth is,” Sarah’s mother tells her, “that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good.”
Kidd based the Grimké family and their story on the lives of real people. Sarah and her much younger sister Angelina were strident emancipationists and early feminists. Handful was created from Kidd’s research on the slave experience. Whatever her inspiration was, the world Kidd recreates will simultaneously fascinate, educate and touch you. It is not to be missed.