Invention of Wings a Superb Historical Novel

Sue Monk Kidd
Viking, ISBN 978-0670024780, 384 pp.
* * * *

If you took Kathryn Stockett’s The Help out of the 20th century and set it during slavery, you might end up with something like The Invention of Wings and you’d get a much better book in the bargain. Sue Monk Kidd’s novel is similarly based on an improbable black/white friendship. She takes us to Charleston, South Carolina in 1803, the year the 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy plantation family received an unorthodox birthday present: her own slave, 10-year-old Hetty (known as Handful in the slave quarters). The birthday girl in question was Sarah Grimké, who shocked her family by trying to free Hetty on the grounds that it was immoral to own slaves. At 11, Sarah was too young to carry out her will, as she would be in adolescence when she insisted she wanted to be a lawyer, but as an adult Sarah Grimké would become a pioneering abolitionist and feminist.

Kidd takes us inside the slave quarters, where we feel the horrors, smell the smells, and vicariously experience yearnings for freedom. There is no happy slave pabulum in this novel; its very title references an African story told by Hetty’s mother Charlotte of how their ancestors developed wings to fly from danger. Charlotte is the Grimké family seamstress and she screws on her compliant face around Mary, the tyrannical mistress of the Grimké household, but privately she reminds Sarah that she promised to free her daughter and intends to hold her to that promise.

The novel shows how Sarah and Hetty developed an unbalanced friendship—one in which it’s not always clear if Sarah is being true to her principles when she does things such as defy the law by teaching Hetty to read, or merely using Hetty as an outlet for a rebellious spirit she’s too scared to exercise around her strict parents. The theme of real versus imagined rebellion is driven home though the overlapping story of Denmark Vesey, a free black man who tried to start a slave uprising in 1822. Coming just three years after Sarah accompanied her dying father north against her will, we begin to wonder if she is all talk and no action. Up to that point, her single biggest act of free will was to insist that she unconventionally be named her sister Angelina’s godmother when the latter was born in 1805.

We know, of course, that Sarah does break out. After numerous trips back to Philadelphia she became a Quaker minister—an act of feminist pluck that sabotaged her marriage plans—and, in 1827, went back go Charleston to take Angelina away from the South and into a life of abolitionist and feminist agitation. (Angelina married another famed abolitionist, Theodore Weld.) This part of the story is documented; Kidd’s skill lies in imaging the lives of the slaves left behind based on fragmentary evidence, and in stitching history and imagination into a brightly colored fictional quilt that both enlightens and entertains. (A quilt plays a key part in the novel, by the way.)

Among the novel’s many revelations is its focus on the slave culture: its inner codes, its folklore, its acts of everyday rebellion, and the lengths to which slaves went to preserve dignity in the face of barbaric injustices. Without knocking us over the head, Kidd also challenges the ingrained Southern myth that Stockett perpetuated in The Help—that many black people came to love and cherish their masters. Hetty and Charlotte, for example, knew that even as a child Sarah wanted the best for them, but they also knew you couldn’t trust white folks and that there were huge structural obstacles in the way of good intentions. Again without being overt about it, Kidd raises the question of whether true friendship is even possible when power relations are skewed—something Sarah discovers in her life among male Quakers, who were sure that slavery was wrong, but were pretty comfortable with patriarchy.

Let me emphasize that this is a novel, not a history book. Kidd demonstrates great skill in developing scenarios, inventing dialogue, and filling in history’s gaps. The novel runs over 380 pages but, like the wings in its title, it flies. Add this book to other recent efforts such as The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, and it’s clear that Ms. Kidd is poised to take her place among the leading ladies of letters.—Rob Weir

Warning: I did not read or listen to the Oprah Book Club version of this novel, but there are many warnings that it should be avoided. Apparently Winfrey interjects her own commentary to the print and audio versions in an intrusive manner that breaks the narrative. Look for versions that say “unmarked” or “without commentary.”

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