Culture Street

Books

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

On January 27, 2014

By Eva Meland

Sue Monk Kidd rose to prominence with the marvellous work The Secret Life of Bees. In The Invention of Wings, she returns to the Deep South of an earlier time.

The Grimke family is part of the aristocracy in South Carolina whose wealth has been unashamedly built on the flogged and bloodied backs of slaves. The children of the family, born into a way of life that is natural to them, have their own personal slaves whom they happily mistreat. But Sarah is different. Unusually intelligent, her father would have her follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer but for one major impediment: she is a girl. Though she yearns for scholarship, her schooling is limited to gentle domestic arts and her aim in life is to marry a suitable man from a good Southern family.

When Sarah turns 11 in 1803, according to family tradition she is presented with her very own slave as a gift. Hetty ‘Handful’ is the same age as Sarah, but there the similarity ends. She is chattel, legally owned and can be bought and sold at her owner’s will. Appalled by the brutalities that she regularly witnesses at the whipping-post in their yard, Sarah rebels. But she too is trapped by the system, and so begins an unusual friendship between the two.

The story is told alternately in first person by Sarah and Handful, and covers the period from 1803 to 1838. Other key characters are Handful’s rebellious mother, the family seamstress and expert quilter, and Sarah’s younger sister Angelina, who shares her intelligence and abhorrence of slavery.

This is an unflinching portrayal of the brutalities of slavery and of the utter misery of a slave’s existence. It is also a story of incredible bravery, by the slaves themselves and by two privileged sisters, who as abolitionists became ostracised from their own home town of Charleston.

The story is all the more remarkable because it is based on real people and events. The Grimke sisters were among the first female abolitionists and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers. In the late 1830s they were arguably the most infamous women in America, and their story deserves to be better known.

This is a beautifully written book. From the first page you know you’re in for a treat, when Handful says of her mother ‘Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.’ Its release feels timely, given the interest in this period of history ignited by movies such as 12 Years a Slave. It deserves a place on the bestseller lists.

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