Monday, February 24, 2014

Book Review: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 2014)

Recommended for ages 14 and up.

I first learned about the Grimke sisters of South Carolina through the Kidlit Celebrates Women's History Month blog, as they were one of the Civil War era women profiled on storyteller Jim Weiss' CD Women in Blue or Gray:  True Stories from Both Sides of the Civil War.   I again heard their story in a PBS American Experience documentary aired in 2013, The Abolitionists.  But neither captured my imagination as completely as Sue Monk Kidd's fascinating new novel, The Invention of Wings, which focuses on the elder of the Grimke sisters, Sarah, and her slave, Handful.

The Grimke sisters, separated in age by 12 years, were born into a wealthy Charleston slave-owning family, and, like other young Southern women of their class, were expected to study French, drawing and other lady-like pursuits, then make a good match and raise a family.  As Kidd tells Sarah's story in the first person, beginning with her girlhood, she never fit into the hole society carved for her.

With her keen intellect, she yearned to become a lawyer like her brother, but her dreams of pursuing a career were ridiculed and then squashed by her family.  When presented with a slave on her 11th birthday, she tried to free the young girl, called Handful, but when her father ripped up the manumission papers she soon decided to teach the girl to read--the only sort of freedom she could offer her.  When her family found out, she was severely punished--all books were denied her--and so was the slave girl.  She takes comfort in the birth of her youngest sister, Angelina, and persuades her mother to make her the child's godmother, and thus begins a close relationship that went considerably beyond sisterly bonds.  Angelina, too, develops a horror of slavery, and we discover through the diary-like narrative that the Grimke sisters' destiny does not lay in Charleston, but rather in the North, where they become Quakers and become the first female soldiers for the abolitionist cause.  This, we must remember, at a time when the idea of women speaking in public places was unheard of.  At the same time, they were among the first to champion women's rights, even more shocking than taking up the cause of slaves.  Their scandalous behavior for the time made them famous around the United States.  Indeed, their anti-slavery pamphlets, addressed to Southern women, were best-sellers in their time, and were inspirational to Harriet Beecher Stowe in her writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Sarah Grimke

In alternating sections, we follow the life of Handful, the slave given to Sarah on her birthday.  Handful is a house slave, schooled in sewing like her mother, and becomes indispensable to the household.  While her life may have been better than a field slave, she craves for freedom, and pays a cruel price for her longing.  Her story is given equal weight to that of the Grimkes, and in an afterword the author describes how while Handful is fictional, she is based loosely on the actual slave that was given to Sarah Grimke on her birthday (although that individual died a few years later).  While the Grimkes' house slaves may be fictional, they are well developed characters, and their story is interwoven with a planned slave revolt orchestrated by Denmark Vesey, a free black historical figure who plays a substantial role in the novel.

While this is an adult novel, I would recommend it highly for high school and even middle school students who are interested in US history and women's history.  It is extremely well written and provides great insight into life at that time, as well as portraying two amazing sisters who were infamous in their time (described in the novel as the most famous women in the country) but who are sadly practically unknown today.  Their inspiring story would also be an excellent choice for a book club.

There are several books for children on the Grimkes, including Sisters Against Slavery:  A Story about Sarah and Angelina Grimke (Stephanie McPherson, 1999)  but no picture books.  Authors:  we need an outstanding new resource on these amazing women!

1 comment:

PragmaticMom said...

Sounds like a real life Uncle Tom's Cabin!