Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.

The Invention of Wings covers history focusing on both slavery, the rights of slaves and the rights of women in the first half of the 19th century. I will be honest when I say that I knew nothing really of Sarah Grimke or her sister, Nina, both of whom became prominent outspoken antislavery campaigners in the years leading up to the Civil War in the US. Born into the middle of a pack of 10 children of a prominent Charleston, South Carolina, judge and a Charleston aristocracy mother, Sarah Grimke was immersed into the culture of slavery that permeated the South from birth. They had house slaves, and while her father worked as a judge, he also had plantation holdings both inland and along the coastal/rice-producing areas of South Carolina. With this family background, it would have seemed much more likely that Sarah would have been a supporter of slavery and a privileged way of life, but that wasn’t the case.

Kidd writes two intertwined stories, that of Sarah and that of a young female slave, whom the family calls “Hetty”. Sarah receives Hetty as a gift on her 11th birthday to be her personal maid. Horrified to own another human being, she tries to give Hetty back but her mother insists this is how things are. Sarah disagrees and begins to disobey her mother in various ways, one of them being to teach Hetty to read (which was illegal in South Carolina during this period). As the two girls grow into adulthood, the gap between them continues to grow. Sarah is expected to marry well and become another gracious Charleston hostess. Hetty is expected to continue to sew gowns for and shop for the young ladies of the house. Both women dream of something better for themselves.

The author has done a LOT of research into Sarah Grimke’s life, and where her story really creates a fullly painted picture of Sarah is after she is able to use existing letters and pamphlets that Sarah wrote speaking out against slavery and for the rights of both Blacks and women in the United States. While there is a mention of a slave gifted to Sarah on her 11th birthday, virtually nothing is known about who this young woman was in real life, so the character of Hetty is based on a lot of “what ifs”. (Which is a sad but true thing that can be said of almost every slave in the 19th century and most women as well.) I appreciated Kidd’s extensive notes on what sources she used and how they guided the story, as well as what things she didn’t know and made educated guesses about or even completely fictionalized. I also really liked the information she provided on quilts and quilting patterns used within the slave communities and how the textiles are sometimes the only reference we have to the many women who lived and died as slaves.

I found this an interesting read and if you aren’t familiar with the history of the slave trade, or trade of any kind in the American South in the early 19th century, this provides a lot of detail in an easy-to-absorb format. Lots of information wrapped up within an engaging tale. My only reservation about the book was some of the pacing in the middle. The book drags a bit while Sarah is trying to figure out where she belongs and what she wants to do with her life after it becomes clear she will not be a traditional wife and mother. Otherwise, I’d recommend this one for fans of historical fiction and women’s studies as a 3.5 to 4/5 star read.

This is book 14/24 for my Fall Into Reading Challenge. Thinking I probably won’t get all 24 read by the end of November but it has been fun to try!

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