I first read The Secret Life of Bees some years ago, and absolutely adored it. For some reason, I had not read any of Sue Monk Kidd’s other works until I received a review copy of her newest novel, The Invention of Wings. The tale, which begins in Charleston in South Carolina in the early nineteenth century, is told from the perspective of two very different girls – Hetty, nicknamed ‘Handful’, who is an ‘urban slave’, and privileged Sarah Grimke.
At the outset of the novel, Sarah is ‘given the ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid’. The story has been inspired by the real historical figure, Sarah Grimke, who, along with her younger sister Angelina, was one of the earliest pioneers in the movements of the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. She is a fascinating character to base a book upon, and Kidd has treated her with the utmost respect.
The novel begins with Hetty’s perspective, and its opening line sets the tone of her narrative: ‘There was a time in Africa the people could fly’. She has been told this legend by her mother, who is also a slave, but fully disbelieves it: ‘We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere’. There is so much historical detail woven in, particularly during the sections in which Hetty narrates. For example, she goes on to describe the way in which babies like her were named: ‘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. Master Grimke named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful’.
The narrative voices of both girls are distinctive, and sound very little like one another. Both protagonists, too, are rather endearing. Hetty is, as she puts it, ‘full of sass’, and freckled Sarah is quite lovely: ‘My brothers had once traced Orion, the Dipper and Ursa Major on my cheeks and forehead with charcoal, connecting the bright red specks, and I hadn’t minded – I’d been their whole sky for hours’.
Kidd has used a most interesting literary tool in The Invention of Wings, in telling the same story from two vastly different perspectives. Both girls are trapped within the social constraints – of their class in Hetty’s case, and their gender in Sarah’s. She is adamant that she wants to change the world, but the fact that she is a girl takes most of the opportunities which her brothers are automatically given away. Throughout, Kidd has captured both Hetty’s naivety and Sarah’s wisdom, and has exemplified the way in which both girls teach one another. The Invention of Wings is a powerful and absorbing novel, which tells of an incredibly important period in American history.