The Invention of Wings

The Invention of WingsNot nearly enough has been written about female heroes in the history of the United States. Sarah and Angelina Grimke are two of those brave women, far ahead of their time, as was their friend Lucretia Mott.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is truly a masterpiece of literature that not only brings to life these remarkable women, but also forces us to examine, once again, slavery and its effect on the psyche of those in its cruel grip. While Sarah, Angelina, and some of the people they met later in life are real, the slaves and many of the neighbors in the story are fictional. I had previously read The Grimke Sisters, by Gerda Lerner, Ph.D., for a college history course, and enjoyed it, but Wings brought them to life with a story I could not stop reading. This book is so much more than a compilation of historical information. It makes the characters speak to our hearts and consciences — it makes us want to strive for justice for all people. It made me want to be a better person. It ended rather abruptly, and I was disappointed at that.

In adulthood, Sarah and, eventually, Angelina broke from their religious denomination, their traditions, their high-society life, and their hometown of Charleston, SC, to fight for the abolition of slavery. Many men didn’t approve of women speaking in public, or of even having opinions on important topics. Because of this, they often had to fight for the right to speak at all. As a result of their heartfelt speeches on the evils of slavery, Sarah and Angelina Grimke inadvertently joined the fight for women’s rights.

After seeing a slave whipped, young Sarah was so emotionally traumatized, she lost her voice, and continued to do so at times of stress. So, on her eleventh birthday, when Sarah’s gift from her parents was a 10-year-old little girl whom the Grimkes called Hetty, Sarah shouted that she could not own another human being, and ran from the room. Hetty’s mother had named her “Handful” because she was, indeed, a handful. Unable to abide the owning of another person, Sarah rebelled in the only way she knew how:  she privately taught Handful to read and write.

The story is told in a narrative alternating between Sarah and Handful. The parallels in the two women’s lives, hopes, and desires are juxtaposed against the painful, shameful differences of their lives. Handful once said that she was a prisoner in her body, but not her mind, while Sarah was a prisoner of her mind, but not her body. Sarah wanted the freedom to become a lawyer, speak her mind, and to have her opinions respected. Handful wanted the freedom to walk into town without a signed paper of permission from her owner, to be able to walk down the street without having to defer to a white person when sent to buy household items, to be allowed an education, and not to have her family members sold away. Nevertheless a rare bond developed between Handful and Sarah that lasted their entire lives.

Handful and her mother, Charlotte, are strong female figures just like Sarah and Angelina, except for the horrible fact that their rebelliousness gets them beaten, not ridiculed. I applauded Charlotte who pretended to be dumb, ill, or injured to escape Mrs. Grimke’s abusive tongue and her cane. It was Charlotte who likened freedom to a bird with wings. As a student of history I learned a lot about slavery (it wasn’t exclusive to the South), but I had never heard of “the wheel”. I can relate so very well to all of these women, for I am a bit rebellious and opinionated, too. Kidd’s poignant prose leads us to examine our own lives and consciences, our choices, our self-imposed “prisons”. She reminds us how we often romanticize the road not taken in life.

I strongly recommend this book. You will not be sorry you spent time reading it.

I read this book on my i-pad using the public library’s app. When I looked at it on my Nook, I saw that there are two versions of the book. One with notes, one without. I later learned the notes are not from the author, at the end of the book, as I had assumed. Instead, they are Oprah’s opinions and comments, and are scattered throughout the text with clickable blue print. I believe I would find that annoying, and am so glad I had a copy without the notes.

Have you gotten your wings?