The Invention of Wings, the latest novel from Sue Monk Kidd, is a recent Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection—and a triumph. Reading it is a sensory, transformative experience. Accounting for nearly 40 years of painful American history, Kidd’s meticulously researched epic is told in two distinct voices: that of Hetty “Handful,” a young slave, and of Sarah, a daughter in the affluent, slave-holding Grimke household, to whom 10-year-old Handful is given as a handmaid on her 11th birthday.
Handful, who spends her days with Sarah, learns the stories of her past as she quilts and appliqués through the night with her accomplished mauma, Charlotte, the head seamstress for the Grimke household. Sarah, considered wayward by her Southern Belle mother, and remarkable by her more judicious father, abhors slavery, and understands in early adolescence that she is bound for something greater than the life her family has planned. The two women are determined and defiant, and form a decades-long bond that, while never disentangled from the uneasy dynamic that slavery presents, allows each to find her place—and her voice—in the freedom-seeking movements each is compelled to join. As Handful explains: “I didn’t know whether Miss Sarah’s feelings [for me] came from love or guilt. I didn’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It was never a simple thing.”
In Handful and Sarah’s parallel narratives, Kidd creates two unique experiences that seem to live and breathe. Through the two women’s eyes, we experience firsthand the brutalities of slavery, and the oppression of women; however, only Sarah—who matures into a dedicated Quaker abolitionist, and a pioneer in the women’s rights movement—was entirely real. Inspired by historical figure Sarah Grimke’s uncommon fortitude in an era of American history that had no place for female independence, Kidd explains (in her notes following the novel) that she chose to recognize Grimke’s contribution to the abolitionist and women’s movements of the 19th century by creating a complex character who resides “at the intersection of history and imagination.”
In contrast to Sarah, Handful was entirely imagined, but her experience is anything but. Handful’s story is rooted in all the horrific true details of her era, and Kidd admits in her notes that one of the biggest challenges in her 4-year writing process “was the notion of writing from the mind, heart, and persona of an enslaved person. I wanted to create Handful in a way that was convincing and respectful.”
Aside from Handful and Sarah’s unique friendship, a number of other powerful bonds, which repeatedly intersect with religion and spirituality, shape the story. Most notably, Handful’s relationship with her mother, and Sarah’s friendship with her younger sister, Angelina (another character rooted in fact), expose strengths and well-guarded shortcomings in each woman, and build the confidence and resilience necessary for each to overcome unimaginable obstacles on their individual quests for freedom. At once a searing referendum on the so-called “peculiar institution” of slavery, and a beautifully woven story of intimate female friendship, The Invention of Wings reminds us that it is possible to soar above one’s circumstances, but only with the momentum and force generated by two beating wings.
Will you read Kidd’s latest?