I don't remember how old I was when I discovered some of the more harrowing chapters of human history — the Holocaust and American slavery — but I do remember convincing my young self that I would have been brave had I lived in those times. I would have hidden my Jewish friend Anne Frank; I would have been a station on the Underground Railroad. I would have stood up for humanity and against injustice.
Later, I was not quite as zealous or stalwart. I considered such acts with a keener sense of how it felt to be ostracized, and a deeper understanding of how much I wanted to belong — or survive. And I found myself contemplating those past selves — the girls and women I've been over the course of my life — while reading Sue Monk Kidd's newest novel, The Invention of Wings.
In simple terms, the book is the fictionalized history of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina (Nina), who were at the forefront of the abolitionist and women's rights movements, wound around the intriguing narrative of a young slave, Hetty, who was given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present. Sarah despises slavery, even at that early age, and out of principle attempts to reject the gift.
Much of the Grimkés' story is historically based: Kidd has fleshed out mountains of research — facts, figures, dates, letters, and articles — into a believable and elegantly rendered fictional first person account of Sarah's life. But though Hetty was real, her story here is almost entirely fabricated — and perhaps because she is mostly a product of Kidd's imagination, Hetty's character seems truly inspired.
She maintains a spirited independence in her internal life. She survives cruelty and servitude by creating rituals and touchstones that she imbues with meaning and power. She both benefits and is injured by her complicated relationship with Sarah, who can neither free her nor protect her when she truly needs it. And yet, for many years, it almost seems as if Hetty is more psychologically free than Sarah, despite the external reality of being a slave.
A pivotal moment in the book comes with the discovery that Sarah has taught Hetty to read — a criminal offense in antebellum South Carolina. Punishment is cruel for both girls; Sarah is banned from her favorite things in the world: her father's library and his books. Hetty is whipped.
But then Hetty learns to sew, and grows to be the best seamstress in Charleston. Ultimately it is this talent that will offer her freedom: spiritually, in the form of a quilt that tells the story of her family, and possibly physically, in the way of a disguise that may allow her to escape. Inside her head, Hetty always has hope. She believes in her ability to get free, she manages to create an internal life of ideas and possibility, and she is able to carve out a sliver of independence within the context of her life.
Meanwhile, Sarah's family ridicules her hope to study law, labeling it unseemly because she is a woman. She is shattered and cowed by their conviction that being a woman means she has no right to ambition. Overcoming that obstacle is a long, painful journey full of self-doubt; she'll face prejudice toward her sex the rest of her life, even as she creates a national following for her abolitionist crusade. Sarah may read, think, or speak — as long as she doesn't make any men uncomfortable by doing so.
The novel is a textured masterpiece, quietly yet powerfully poking our consciences and our consciousness. What does it mean to be a sister, a friend, a woman, an outcast, a slave? How do we use our talents to better ourselves and our world? How do we give voice to our power, or learn to empower our voice?
I'm not sure any of my selves, at any point in my life, would have been as brave or formidable as Hetty or Sarah, though I'd like to think so. I am grateful that Kidd, an exquisite and masterful writer, explores these difficult topics and complex ideas and does so unflinchingly — yet somehow leaves us feeling uplifted and hopeful. And finally, I am appalled that I had never heard of the Grimkés before, and thank the author sincerely for allowing me to make their acquaintance.
Bobbi Dumas is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis. She mostly reviews for Kirkus Media, and is a founding contributing editor of the writing resource website HowToWriteShop.com.