Review of The Invention of Wings

Public domain

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd, Penguin Books, 2014

The title of The Invention of Wings is inspired by ancient black folklore which maintains that Africans were able to fly before they lost their wings when trapped into slavery. This is the story of Hetty “Handfull” Grimké, an urban slave in early 19th-century Charleston, South Carolina, and the parallel story of her counterpart, Sarah Grimké, the idealistic daughter of a wealthy slave-owning southern family. The story is narrated in alternating voices, which allows the reader to fully penetrate these parallel realities. Whereas Handful’s character is loosely fashioned after a slave, Sarah’s character is based on a historical figure who, together with her younger sister Angelina, spearheaded the abolitionist and suffragette movement before the American Civil War.

The story starts when Sarah is gifted 10-year-old Handful as a handmaiden for her 11th birthday. This explains why Handful and Sarah share the same family name, as slaves were often given their master’s surname. It ends after 35 years of struggles, both jointly and severally. It must be remembered that while Sarah and her sister Angelina (“Nina”) were documented as some of the finest feminist thinkers of their times, Handful is a composite account of the dismal lives of slaves before the Civil War.

With this solidly documented and heartfelt novel, Sue Monk Kidd has clearly made the point that two dissimilar women – one an upper-class white slave owner and the other one, a black slave – were able to overcome the constraints of class, race and gender by giving each other the invaluable gift of friendship, solidarity and sustenance. With proper sustenance, cossetted southern belles can be empowered and black slaves can grow wings.

Maya Khankhoje likes well-researched historical novels because they bring the past alive in a way history books often fail to do.