Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Invention of Wings: a book about an often forgotten historical figure

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a story about a young girl who grows up on a southern plantation to become one of the greatest human rights advocates who would influence countless women after her. When I was given the book, I was told that it was about a real person which made the story more interesting. As I started reading, I realized I recognized the name, Sarah Grimke. As I googled her name, I realized that I studied her in my college history courses. Along with her sister, Angelina and her brother-in-law, Theodore, she would write the second most influential anti-slavery literature. American Slavery As It Is would be second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ms. Stowe was heavily influenced by their book.

The Invention of Wings opens in November 1803 with Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a slave and daughter of the Grimke’s seamstress, Charlotte. Handful is given to Sarah as her lady’s maid by her parents on Sarah’s eleventh birthday. Sarah wants no part in owning a slave but she is stuck. She vows to free Handful somehow. The two women will form a friendship that will test the understanding what a privileged white woman could have on the plight of the African slaves. Through both women’s eyes, the reader will be witness to the harshness that slaves were treated with. Harsh punishments for behavior as simple as looking in the wrong direction. Sarah will find a voice in a society where women weren't allowed to have opinions much less voice them.

The story is actually told from the perspectives of both Sarah and Handful as each chapter is from viewpoint of one of the women. Handful as she struggles with the bonds of slavery and Sarah as she struggles with the bonds of societal gender roles. The reader begins to see both sides of a turning points in our nation’s history. The battle for the abolition movements is heating up as the story ends in June 1838, 23 years before the start of the Civil War, the reader knows it’s not the end for these two women. While I was familiar with Sarah Grimke, I enjoyed reading her background and how she developed her world views. She is known as an abolitionist and a woman’s rights advocate but to her, they are one in the same: human rights. Racial equality and gender equality it was all the same to her. 

This book begins slowly but as you read, you get hooked. You want to know what happens to Handful, her mom, Charlotte, and Sarah. I enjoyed Ms. Kidd’s inclusion of the famous names of the time. Names like Denmark Vesey, a freed slave who would be executed for planning a slave revolt, Henry Clay who helped devise the Missouri Compromise, which would add fuel to the abolition fire, and William Lloyd Garrison, editor of an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. There is so much more that I could write about but I would rather you read the book for yourself and discover the history of a woman who was instrumental to the cause of abolition even though many who study history will never know her name.