The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
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 in its early beginnings before the Civil War. As young girls and women they grew up on a slave holding plantation in South Carolina. In alternating chapters is the intriguing narrative of Sarah and 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.
A key 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.
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 eventually 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. Her younger sister is also highlighted. Sarah is the thinker. Her younger sister Nina is the doer. They make a great team.
I would strongly suggest that your read the author’s comments at the end of this wonderful novel before starting on the book story itself. It’s fascinating and will help clarify where historical facts and the author imagination stand. I also found it interesting that the author tells how she ran across the Grimke sisters story in a Chicago exposition of “one hundred of the most influential women in American History.” The two sisters certainly deserved much more notice in the annals of American History textbooks than they ever received. For my part between 1964 and 2004 when I taught units on the people and events leading up to the Civil War to high school students I always included their neglected story. Now I’m every glad that Kidd, a wonderful writer, has brought that story to a much wider audience. I strongly recommend it to everyone…
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