“The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd is the story of the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, daughters of South Carolina plantation owners, a slave-holding family in Charleston. They were two early and prominent activists for abolition and women’s rights.
The story begins in Charleston in 1803 when 11-year-old Sarah is given Hetty, or Handful, as her mother called her, a slave for her own personal use, as a birthday present. But even at that age, Sarah knew that she did not want to own a slave. The author alternates chapters in the voices of Sarah and Hetty over a 30-year period.
Though they were master and slave, they were both children who enjoyed children’s games. Handful especially liked listening in on Sarah’s lessons. When Sarah threatened she would not learn a thing if Handful were not with her, Handful was allowed to sit in on the schooling – a criminal offense in South Carolina at the time.
Handful’s mother also yearns for her freedom and saves her money to buy it someday. She becomes involved with a freed black man and successful businessman, Denmark Vesey, in Charleston. In 1800 Denmark had been allowed to purchase his freedom with $600 he had won in a street lottery. The author vividly describes the “Work House” and other punishments of the day that spurred Vesey and his followers to organize a rebellion.
Meanwhile Sarah and her younger sister grow into their roles as champions for all women. Sarah moves to Philadelphia, where the Quakers are finding their voice in opposition to slavery. As Lucretia Mott says to Sarah, “Life is arranged against us, Sarah. – We’re all yearning for a wedge of sky. – I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.”
The author’s careful research was based on extensive biographical material, including diaries, letters and newspaper accounts. Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the first women to become public speakers in the United States, were outspoken abolitionists and pioneering advocates for women’s rights.