Her mother tells Hetty “Handful”, a 10-year-old servant in the Grimké family’s Charleston home, that in Africa their people could fly like blackbirds. Enslaved in America, they lost the magic.
Mother Charlotte keeps their history alive by sewing it into a story quilt. It begins with black triangles evoking blackbirds, continues with the spirit tree where she and Hetty gather courage, believing “our spirits live in the tree with the birds, learning to fly.” But the quilt also depicts the crippling punishment Charlotte endured for stealing a bolt of silk, the “workhouse” where slaves were sent for various transgressions deemed too serious for a simple lashing, Charlotte and Hetty working in the fields and the house, and finally, a hopeful panel depicting their flight to freedom.
Spanning the years 1803 to 1838, Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, “The Invention of Wings,” is narrated in alternating chapters by Hetty and her same-aged owner, Sarah. Sarah Grimké is the fictionalized incarnation of the famous abolitionist.
She and her sister, Angelina, were the first women to speak out in public against slavery, becoming outlaws even among other (male) abolitionists; the city fathers banned Sarah from Charleston. Not surprisingly, the sisters also became early crusaders for women’s rights. In the anti-slavery movement, Sarah is the theoretician, “Nina” the firebrand orator and activist. Sarah muses, “how cunning the Fates had been. Nina was one wing, I was the other.”
Kidd has done a marvelous job of capturing two special and vibrant voices. Sarah is thoughtful and bookish. Hetty is caustic about her situation and her owners, her inner rebellion and sharp humor all she has to affirm her selfhood and dignity. “A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost — don’t see it, don’t hear it, but it’s always hovering round on ready.”
Sarah’s first act of overt rebellion is to teach the teenage Hetty to read and write. When the minister tells her she’s broken the law, this startling metaphor occurs to her: “I knew of this law, though vaguely, as if it had been stored in a root cellar in my head and suddenly dug up like some moldy yam.” She thinks it a shameful law that surely couldn’t be God’s will.
I can’t recall reading a book about slavery that presented in such vivid and heartbreaking detail just what the daily life and labor felt like. But Kidd’s fluid and often beautiful language glides and soars and pulls up Sarah and Hetty with it.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.