A phenomenal venture into historical fiction, Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings” explores crucial issues of the nineteenth century through two fundamental characters. Hetty “Handful” Grimke was born into slavery and serves the affluent Grimke family in Charleston. Her mauma, Charlotte, has inculcated into her a bitter hatred of the peculiar institution and herself does all she can to subvert her condition in whatever ways she can despite the consequences. She teaches Handful the story of her African grandmother and the folk tale that when they give their spirits to a tree, their spirits learn to fly along with the birds. As the narrative opens, ten-year-old Handful is given as an eleventh birthday present to Sarah Grimke, and this exchange has a lifelong impact on both girls. Sarah began stuttering after witnessing brutality toward one of the family slaves, but she has great determination and revolutionary ideas. Not content to live docilely and perpetuate the system of slavery, she yearns to satisfy her insatiable thirst for knowledge and make a positive impact on her world. However, such ambitions are seemingly ahead of their time, and she meets fierce opposition from society and from her own family. When she becomes godmother to her youngest sister, Angelina, her life and purpose change, and she embarks on a personal journey that will literally change the course of history.
“The Invention of Wings” is a seamless tapestry of two early-nineteenth-century women who dare to challenge the societal standards into which they are respectively born. Drawing on historical figures such as Denmark Vesey, Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, and Sarah Grimke herself, Sue Monk Kidd creates a heartbreaking and breathtakingly realistic story. With alternating short chapters and sections that span from 1803 to 1838, the first-person narrative voice shifts between Handful and Sarah as the causes within the narrative correspondingly alter to eventually encompass both abolition and women’s suffrage. The subject matter is, more often than not, melancholy and even morose due to its adherence to situational reality, but nevertheless there remains a whisper of hope and possibility throughout. This incredible work of historical fiction does not shy away from the harsh and sometimes graphic incidents typical of the time period, forcing the reader to engage in the story, but in so doing, the themes of equality, love, and perseverance resonate long after the narrative ends.