With her sweeping third novel, Sue Monk Kidd continues her exploration of female empowerment that began with her memoir “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and led to her enormously successful novel “The Secret Life of Bees.”
In “The Invention of Wings,” the latest Oprah book club pick, Kidd fictionalizes an inherently dramatic true story from our shared history of slavery to illuminate the lives of four women coming of age in Charleston during the volatile early 1800s. The real Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina were born and raised in an elite slaveholding family, but they rebelled against their destinies as debutantes to become leading abolitionists and feminists. While the sisters’ journeys are already immensely compelling, Kidd raises the stakes by weaving Sarah’s first-person narrative together with that of an enslaved girl who was given to Sarah for her 11th birthday.
Not much is known about the real 10-year-old enslaved girl, but Kidd names her Handful and gives her a fierce and powerful mother, Charlotte, who wars against the dehumanizing forces in the Grimke household. Charlotte also teaches Handful how to rely on their spirit tree, and she stitches their family stories into a quilt before mother and daughter get drawn into the historic slave rebellion plotted by a free black Charleston man, Denmark Vesey, in 1822.
When Sarah’s mother ties a lavender ribbon around Handful’s neck and presents her at a party as a gift to her daughter, she links the two girls’ destinies, and we follow them from that moment in 1803 up to 1838 as their young country hurtles toward an unavoidable confrontation. Alternating between Sarah’s and Handful’s contrasting perspectives on their oddly conjoined worlds allows Kidd to generate unstoppable narrative momentum as she explores the troubled terrain that lies between white and black women in a slaveholding society.
Kidd’s fictional Sarah is 4 years old when she witnesses an enslaved woman being tied to the porch rail for a whipping. The girl’s speech impediment begins that day, but she’s smart, and her dreams of becoming a lawyer are encouraged by her father — until he realizes that she’s serious.
Her connection with Handful strengthens her opposition to slavery, yet time and again the decisions that young Sarah makes, whether in pursuit of liberation or simply out of ignorance, end up costing Handful more. For instance, after Charlotte extracts a promise from Sarah to help free Handful any way she can, Sarah rebels against her father by teaching Handful to read. When the girls are found out, Sarah is banned from her father’s library, but Handful is whipped. Sarah tries to distance herself from slavery by giving Handful back to her own mother, only to discover that this strategy makes her unable to protect or free Handful herself.
All of this action takes place in the novel’s opening scenes, with the story growing more complex as it unfolds. As these women reach for liberation, their lives move from the contained domestic sphere to the broader political world, from small closed rooms to the shimmering expanse of Charleston Harbor and beyond. Kidd never lets us forget that true liberation always comes with painful losses, that integrity requires bravery, no matter the era. As Sarah says, “Being an abolitionist could get you attacked right on the streets — heckled, flogged, stoned, killed,” even in the North.
Kidd’s focus on the Grimke sisters’ evolution provides a welcome exploration of the enormous impact that slavery had on whites as well as blacks. Even as she reveals the power of cross-racial intimacy to radicalize both parties, she doesn’t shy away from examining the dangers of white innocence and white privilege.
The novel’s language can be as exhilarating as its powerful story, despite instances where the characters seem too self-conscious of their period setting. Overuse of the word “slave,” especially among the enslaved, injects a distracting historical distance at times, and young Sarah names more antiques than she might reasonably be expected to have noticed. But the propulsion generated by the alternating narration, along with the sheer drama of the unfolding story, soon takes over.
All of Kidd’s people come to life, but especially freckled, redheaded Sarah and petite, golden-eyed Handful, each determined to be heard. 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.
Wrinkle is the author of “Wash,” which won the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction.
On Monday, Sue Monk Kidd will speak at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington. For information and tickets, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.
the invention of wings
By Sue Monk Kidd
Viking. 373 pp. $27.95