In the years before the Civil War, Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina Grimké Weld were two of the best-known women in America — "modestly famous and extravagantly infamous," as Sue Monk Kidd puts it in her new novel.
Their story was remarkable: Born into the lap of luxury as daughters of a wealthy, aristocratic, slave-owning family in Charleston, S.C., they grew up to become passionate crusaders for abolition and women's rights whose speeches drew crowds of thousands as well as verbal and physical attacks. A pamphlet against slavery they wrote in 1839 with Angelina's husband, Theodore Weld, was a major influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe's world-shaking 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Now, 140 years after Sarah's death, they are largely unknown. But in The Invention of Wings, Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) imagines them back to life in unforgettable fashion.
As she explains in her author's note, Kidd combines real incidents with fiction in the book. The true event that lies at her story's core is an episode in Sarah's childhood. On her 11th birthday, as was the tradition in her family, she was given a personal slave, a "waiting maid," a girl of about the same age named Hetty Grimké. Sarah taught Hetty to read — in secret, because it was against the law for anyone to teach a slave to read. (Sarah's father, a lawyer and judge, helped write those laws.) They were caught and severely punished.
In real life, Hetty Grimké died not long afterward. In The Invention of Wings she lives, and shares the book with Sarah, each of them narrating, in distinctive voices, alternate chapters that take them from childhood to middle age, and into lives neither of them imagined when they bent together over a slate and book in Sarah's locked bedroom, the keyhole covered.
But don't call her Hetty. "Handful was my basket name. The master and missus, they did all the proper naming, but a mauma would look on her baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her. ... If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma."
Handful she is, from childhood a fierce girl who strains against the mental bonds of slavery. It's a mind-set she gets from her beloved "mauma," Charlotte, and one that often puts both of them in harm's way in the Grimké household.
Sarah's mother, Mary, runs that household not with an iron fist but with a gold-tipped cane that she swings with vigor into the head of any slave who annoys her — with more brutal punishments possible for greater transgressions. Mary is not much kinder to her children, and she is perpetually exasperated with Sarah, who, besides being plain and plagued with a stutter that renders her poor marriage material, is full of "alien ideas. This is our way of life, dear one, make your peace with it," Mary says.
But Sarah cannot. Her earliest memory is her horror at seeing one of the family's slaves whipped, "blooms of red that open like petals" soaking the back of her dress. As a young woman, Sarah reflects at a party, "The slaves moved among us with trays of custard and Huguenot tortes, holding doors, taking coats, stoking fires, moving without being seen, and I thought how odd it was that no one ever spoke of them, how the word slavery was not suitable in polite company, but referred to as the peculiar institution."
Her questioning mind also leads her to resist the belle's path laid out for her and her sisters: appropriate husband, hordes of children (her mother has 11), the endless details of overseeing a grand house and the slaves needed to run it. Sarah wants to be a lawyer like her father, which she discovers is a laughable notion, yet she can't accept her fate. She will have a couple of romances, one a youthful folly, the other a deep love that makes her confront her own desire for independence.
Handful is not much concerned with romance, and Kidd subtly makes clear why. The reality for a slave was that not only was it illegal for her to marry, but anyone she loved — a partner, a parent, a child — could be sold at a master's whim, never to be seen or heard from again. Happily ever after was not a possibility.
For both Sarah and Handful, story is deeply important — knowing the story of the past and telling one's own story. For Sarah story is embodied in books; even as a child, she says, "I dreamed of them in my sleep. I loved them in a way I couldn't fully express. ..." When she is caught teaching Handful to read, her punishment is being banned permanently from her father's huge library. As an adult, as her ideas about abolition and feminism take shape, she expresses them first in writing.
Story takes a different form for Handful. Charlotte is a highly skilled seamstress who spends all her days sewing every article of clothing and household goods for 13 Grimkés and a dozen or so slaves, but at night she sews her own story: a magnificent quilt whose squares are appliqued with pictures, of her with her own mother, of Handful's father, of herself with one leg strapped up behind her and the strap fastened around her neck as one of the missus' punishments. She teaches Handful to sew as well, and one of the first things the girl learns is to copy her mother's decoration of those quilt squares with black triangles that represent the wings the people once had. In Africa, Charlotte, tells her, "they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind."
It isn't easy, but Handful will invent her own wings, and so will Sarah. And to their engrossing stories, by turns shocking and thrilling and moving, Kidd brings her own kind of magic.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.