I somehow made it all the way through this book before I discovered that it is based on the lives of two sisters from our history. Women I have never heard of, even in all the reading I had done on the women’s rights movement. Okay, more on that later.
I picked up The Invention of Wings at the library. Looked interesting. Was so much more than just interesting!
The invention of Wings is told through first person narratives of a number of the main characters in the book. Primarily through the words of Sarah Grimke, the young white debutante from an old slave owning Charleston family, who from a very young age finds issue with the owning of humans. And Handful or Hetty, the young black slave that is gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday.
Hetty gives a beautiful rich texture to the story with her voice as she tells of her mother, the quilt maker, who tells stories with the appliques and stitches she loving places in each of her quilts. The hoarding of tiny scraps of fabrics from making clothes for the family to weave into these quilts. And teaching Hetty her art and giving her a value to the family that few slaves have. For, mother and daughter are so good with their needles, their services are wanted by those even outside the family.
When Hetty is given to Sarah, Sarah immediately attempts to free her with a letter she leaves on her father’s desk. When this attempt fails, Sarah begins to teach Hetty to read. A crime for both the teacher and the student. Sarah,is brilliant, headstrong, and set on a path to defy her family’s heritage of Southern slave owners. Sarah dreams of defying the norms and following in her father’s footsteps and becoming an attorney and reads through his library with a fury. However, when he learns of her teaching Hetty to read, she is given the punishment of being banned from her father’s library and furthering her education. Her sole consolation is in becoming the Godmother to her sister, Angelina or Nina, who quickly takes more to Sarah than she does their mother.
As both girls mature into adulthood, the friendship changes and they move in different directions. Hetty becomes involve with the black abolitionist movement after her mother fails to return from an escape excursion to meet with her love and Sarah meets an enigmatic Quaker man while travelling with her sick father. This brings her into the abolitionist movement, though from a different direction.
She returns home after her father’s death and begins a correspondence with Israel Morris (the Quaker man she met) and after a time, returns to Philadelphia to join the Quaker church there. There, she meet Lucretia Mott, a still famous abolitionist, feminist and Quaker minister and realizes that she also, wishes to be a voice in front of the crowds.
The Invention of Wings is different than most slavery era books I have read. It gives you a view of history, the lives of the women, and what life was like for them and expected of them. Even in the least likable characters, such as Sarah’s mother, she gives a depth and range showing the lights as well as shadows that reside in all of us.
The book resonates with all the lessons of racism, religious bias and fundamentalism, sexism and the full sociological gamut that was a part of that time in our history. The characters are believable and engaging, drawing you deeply into their world and immersing you in it. And thankfully, a couple of them have been drawn from the annals of history so that you might delve further into their stories.
Sarah and Angelina Grimke were both major players in both the abolitionist movement as well as the early women’s movement. They were the first female speakers in the United States. And it was primarily the rebuking of their public speaking by the religious community, including the Quaker community, that pushed them into the feminist arena. The fact that we have not heard their names in our history books shows again how women who defy the status quo are erased. Thankfully, there are writers like Sue Monk Kidd that dig up their bones to remind us.
The Invention of Wings is a book I would place well into the top tier of books that should be on a required “to read” list. The author is stellar in her use of the language (understandable, since she also wrote, The Secret Life of Bees). And she has definitely earned a spot on my favored author’s list.