It may be that you feel you don’t want to read yet another novel about slavery in the United States. After all, you’ve read Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, or at least you’ve seen the movie. I sympathize, I truly do, you know the country’s shameful past and the almost unbelievable horrors inflicted on human beings. It is painful to have them recreated in the hands of a skilled author.
So why would I recommend this book to you?
Because you will learn something.
Meticulous research is a fundamental necessity for any historical fiction, and this book is, as far as I can tell, accurate, in both the detail and the larger picture. That was certainly the author’s aim. As she said in an interview with Ophra Winfrey, “I wanted to get it right. I spent a year reading - slave narratives; people writing about slavery, about abolition; 19th-century history.”
Sue Monk Kidd immerses you in the world of early nineteenth century Charleston, South Carolina, not just the monied, high society world of her heroine, Sarah Grimké, but the parallel world of her maid, Handful. Handful is the name her mother gave her. Hetty is the name the white world knows her by. This simple choice of name tells you mountains about the way the enslaved people forged a culture of their own, and also quite a bit about Handful’s character.
This wealthy Charleston is dangerous to the white population, who, by setting themselves up as masters have set themselves apart and made themselves frightened, defensive and circumscribed. Several times the author has Sarah notice the vast numbers of slaves in the streets: ‘As the carriage neared the market, the noise mounted and the sidewalks began to overflow with Negroes and mulattoes. Sunday was the slaves’ only day off, and they thronged the throughfares…even on regular days, the slaves dominated the streets, doing their owner’s bidding.’ Notice the menace in that word ‘dominated’. These people knew they were sitting on a powder keg. They do everything they can to damp it down.
The evocation of the parallel world of the enslaved is masterly. It is all at once saddening, joyful, amusing, defiant and crushed. Handful is the other heroine of this book. She is smart, resourceful and determined. She goes through hell and back. She has to. These things happened and this is a truthful book. But she survives. Not ‘made stronger’, that dreadful cliché, but worked over, scarred and honed.
Sarah Grimké, and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, early abolitionists who deserve to be more widely known than they are. They eventually left Charleston for the North and joined the abolitionist lecture circuit, campaigning for the end of slavery at a time when it was outrageous for a woman to speak in public, and beyond the pale to speak to an audience with men attending. They became pariahs in Charleston, threatened with arrest if they should ever return home. Far from being deterred by the public shock over their behavior they added women’s rights to their speeches and managed to annoy the high-ups in the abolitionist movement as well.
Although Sarah Griimké the abolitionist is the inspiration of this book I found her personal development into a major player in the anti-slavery campaign its least convincing aspect. As a defiant and intelligent child she is all you could wish. As an awkward young woman at odds with her society, her mother, the minister, you name it, she is totally believable. But when it came to her religious faith and her association with the Presbyterians and the Quakers I found something lacking. It is as if the author cannot quite accept the integral nature of religion to her life. For the highly motivated white abolitionists religion was their motivation, their rock, their meaning. It fails to come across that way for Sarah. It is as if she is wandering around churches challenging God to tell her what to do, instead of God dragging her by hook or crook into his plan for her, as the devout Quakers and Calvinists of the movement believed.
But the sense of her being trapped and stultified where she is, that comes across all too well. The subjugation of women permeates every aspect of her life and her relationships. Subjugation and its hateful consequences for both the subdued and the subduer, is the spine of this book.
Handful’s faith, on the other hand, in her mother’s story-quilt and their spirit tree, is beautifully conveyed. This is after her mother disappears: ‘Next day, after I’d slept a little, I sewed the layers of the quilt together with a tacking stitch. Then I wrapped the finish quilt round me like a glory cloak. I wore it out into the yard where Aunt Sister was bundling up copping cane sugar and she said, “Girl, what you got on you? What you do to your head?” I didn’t say nothing. I walked back to the tree with my breath trailing clouds and I wrapped a new thread round the trunk.’
If you want to be transported to the past, if you want to learn, even when you thought you knew enough, The Invention of Wings is for you.