The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

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The quality of the audio books that I consume while I work is a lottery, and I get through a lot of mostly crime fiction dross, but every now and again I run up against a gem, and The Invention of Wings (2014) is one such. It is a fictionalised account of the life of notable abolitionist and pioneer US feminist from the middle of the C19th, Sarah Grimke (1792-1873).

At the end of the book (13hours or 359pp) there is an Author’s Note in which Sue Monk Kidd sets out over a number of pages quite clearly where and why she has deviated from what is apparently a quite substantial body of biographical material:

“Back home in Charleston [South Carolina] … it turned out I had been driving by the Grimke sisters’ unmarked house for over a decade, unaware these two women were the first female abolition agents and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers… My aim was not to write a thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s history, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.

The device she uses is to alternate Sarah Grimke’s voice with that of the female slave given to Grimke by her parents as an 11th birthday present, called by her owners Hettie, but by her mother and her fellow slaves, Handful. The real Handful apparently died young so this is an almost totally invented character and while I have said elsewhere that I have problems with white authors speaking through black protagonists, she seems both realistically and sympathetically rendered.

In the early 1800s Sarah’s father was the senior judge in the South Carolina Supreme Court and an important spokesman for the slavery laws underpinning his wealth and that of all the plantation ‘aristocracy’ at a time, in the decades prior to the American Civil War, when the institution of slavery was under severe attack from the abolitionist North. When the novel opens Sarah’s older brothers are being educated to go on to university to join their father in the law and in managing the family estates. Despite being destined for a ‘suitable’ marriage Sarah is being educated in the classics alongside her brother Tom, but this education is brought to a sudden and savage end – she is forbidden access to any books at all – when it is discovered that Sarah has been teaching Handful to read and write.

As in many C19th stories, and it is surprising how natural it seems, religion is central to the lives of the protagonists. Sarah becomes increasingly concerned with being complicit in the injustices which deliver her a life of privilege and this sees her move gradually from the established Episcopalian (Anglican) church through Presbyterianism to joining and then being disowned by, for being too radical, the anti-slavery Quakers. Likewise Handful makes contact with the new African Methodist Episcopal Church and its radical free black preacher (and one time lover of her mother), Denmark.

Sarah leaves the South and goes to live in Philadelphia, initially in the house of a Quaker widower, Israel Morris, as governess to his children and then, after returning briefly to Charleston, boarding with various sympathetic members of the Quaker community – a female preacher, Israel’s sister, and a black woman school teacher. I am skipping most of the plot here, all the mushy love interests, and the escape and later return of Handful’s mother and so on, but I will just say this is a good, well written novel as well as an interesting story well told. Sarah is joined in Philadelphia by her younger sister Nina. Nina has an inflammatory anti-slavery letter published in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and this leads both to their banishment from their relatively conservative Quaker community and to their joining the abolitionists as, it turns out, wildly popular speakers.

The novel ends with Handful making a bid for freedom and with Sarah in middle age and determinedly single. In 1828 she had written to Nina

“Last month, Israel proposed marriage, declaring himself at long last. You’ll be surprised to learn I turned him down. He didn’t want me to go on with my plans for the ministry, at least not as his wife. How could I choose someone who would force me to give up my own small reach for meaning? I chose myself, and without consolation.

I was preparing this post in my mind even while I was listening to the book, but have brought it forward in light of the shocking shootings in the past week which appear to have occurred in Handful’s church. In my review I have passed over the injustices and straight out atrocities which the author describes, no doubt based on her research, as being inflicted on Handful and the slave community. But it appears that despite all apparent advances, in one way or another they continue.

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References: An account of the shootings in the Guardian. Sarah Grimke Wikipedia entry

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