The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd


Word PressThis book, set largely in antebellum Charleston, combines fact and fiction in telling the stories of Sarah Grimke, the elder of the two famous abolitionist Grimke sisters, and a fictional character, Handful, a female slave who was owned by the Grimke family and was close to Sarah when they were both young.  The blurb on the back cover, “two girls who grow up never doing as they’re told”, makes it sound like a children’s book about two naughty little kids, and I’m surprised at the publishers for degrading a story about such important issues by describing it in such a ridiculous way, but let’s try to ignore that!

Two years ago, I visited South Carolina on an organised tour.  My priority was to see Charleston, which I’d been wanting to see for many years, but it also included a tour of Magnolia Plantation, and I was rather excited when I found out that the place had once belonged to a nephew of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, because they are such important figures.  The book shows us Sarah’s struggles as an opponent of slavery in antebellum South Carolina, and as a strong-minded woman in a society in which women were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere.  We see how she eventually moved to Philadelphia, but, even there, was seen as being too radical, both in her Abolitionist views and in her views of women’s place in society.  We also see how Handful, forbidden to leave the Grimkes’ property without permission, threatened with being sold away from her mother, and physically abused by her owners, manages to remain unbowed, and eventually runs away.

The book also shows Handful’s mother becoming involved with Denmark Vesey, but I think that that was a wasted opportunity: Sue Monk Kidd doesn’t really show how the Vesey plot, and then the Nat Turner Uprising in Virginia nine years later, intensified the fear of a widespread slave uprising, especially in a city like Charleston where slaves formed a majority of the population.  Early in the book, we see Sarah’s father say that he knows that slavery is wrong.  By the 1850s, it was highly unlikely that a man in his social position would have said that, as the mood shifted from regarding slavery as a necessary evil to trying to convince society that it was a positive good.  Fear of slave uprisings had a lot to do with that.  So too, obviously, did the question of whether or not slavery should be permitted in new states joining the Union.  Whilst that was more of an issue in the 1840s and especially the 1850s, it was an issue earlier on too, and I’m surprised that the Missouri Compromise isn’t mentioned in this book.  The Nullification Crisis isn’t mentioned either, which you’d think it might be in a book set in Charleston.

Oh well, enough about what isn’t mentioned!  There’s plenty which is, and a lot to think about, as there always is in any book which tackles the issue of slavery.  We also see Sarah struggling to cope with the realisation that, even amongst Abolitionists, there are few people who truly believe in racial equality at that time.  Over 150 years after the end of slavery in the …. I’m going to say United States, but I do realise that that’s a controversial term when talking about 1865, but you know what I mean!  Anyway, over 150 years after the end of slavery in the United States, the subject of racism has still not been fully resolved.  This book is quite uplifting, though, because we see Sarah freeing herself from the constraints of the society in which she grew up – and there are many examples, in both the USA and Britain, of women taking the lead in reform movements – , even though she has to sacrifice a lot in the process, and we see Handful refusing to let her spirit be broken and, in the end, managing to get away.  I’m not trying to compare the position of a white upper-class Southern woman with that of a slave, obviously, but the theme of the book is that both women are trying to invent their “wings”.

Sadly, very few slaves were able to find freedom, but there was a very important “slave culture”, which was never broken and which lives on today.  The book’s title comes from an African-American folk tale about people having wings.  It’s a very fitting title for a very interesting book.



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