The Invention of Wings

  • Sue Monk Kidd
  • Viking
  • 359 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Smith
  • February 20, 2014

Haunted by slavery, two unforgettable American women form a complex relationship as each strives to make a life of her own in this lyrical and edifying tale.

In the early 19th century, when slavery was the tortured breath that moved the country forward, proximity and politics often found slavers and enslaved forced into uneasy consort. This relationship was not a partnership but more often a mere coincidence of commerce. Any ties beyond that were immediately suspect: The battered link that bound any black person and any white person wasn’t strong enough to overcome the fact that “friendship” was only truly a choice for one of them.

For that reason, it’s difficult to chronicle the evolution of a relationship with the realities of slavery at its core. But in The Invention of Wings, a sweeping narrative that manages to be both edifying and magical, that’s exactly what Sue Monk Kidd has done. Beginning in early 19th-century Charleston, S.C., this story tells the tale of Sarah Grimké and Hetty “Handful” Grimké, a young slave who is ceremoniously presented to Sarah on her 11th birthday.

The memory of seeing a slave being brutally flogged haunts Sarah, who is quietly headstrong, and causes her to struggle with a debilitating stammer. Horrified and numbed with guilt by the idea of “owning” someone, she tries to “give back” her new servant, but her rigid mother rebuffs her attempts to return Hetty, and the two young girls, forced together, become wary confidantes. Sarah even dares to teach Hetty to read. But “friendship” is not the word for what happens to them.

Hetty never lets go of her mistrust of white people, especially after illicitly glimpsing the leather-bound book that lists the worth of each of the slaves she has come to know as family: “Goods and chattel. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. I didn’t believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder.”

Soon after being presented with Hetty, Sarah, who is sometimes idealistic to the point of saccharine, pens a manumission for the slave and leaves it for her father, a gruff and unreadable judge, to find: “What could Father do but make Hetty’s freedom as legal and binding as her ownership? I was following a code of law he fashioned himself!” Despite this grand, and ultimately futile gesture, it is contrition that initially keeps her linked to Hetty. Only a fraction of this idealism, however, can be attributed to the huge ideas that clutter the heads of youth. The rest is Kidd’s need to give root to the idea of the fiery individualist Sarah Grimke will become.

Skillfully, Kidd uses Hetty, with her growing rebelliousness, to craft a sharp parallel to both Sarah’s maddening logic. Both Hetty’s and Sarah’s hearts are splintered and slowly mended; both grow frustrated with the staunch boundaries drawn around their lives; both slowly realize a grudging, bone-deep need for the other. The sequential chapters, spanning more than three decades of their lives, reveal Hetty and Sarah linked in their uncertain sisterhood, gathering what they’ll need to soar.

The Invention of Wings, then, is fiction with history at its heart. In the expansive author’s note at the rear of the book, Kidd tells of her discovery and subsequent fascination with the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, formidable and self-assured stalwarts of the abolitionist and burgeoning women’s rights movements. Plowing through a staggering amount of research, the author managed to craft a gorgeously intuitive first-person rendering of Sarah. And although Hetty was indeed a real person, she finds shape as a result of Kidd’s enviable imagination. Kidd’s thoughts, her reflections on days of suppressed chaos that make up Hetty’s life, are fiercely lyrical. Everything Hetty’s mauma, or mother, knew “came from living on the scarce side of mercy.” Hetty dreads never knowing freedom, living “the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut.”

And, as rendered, Hetty is indeed a handful. Because she is the one of the few characters in the book who is drawn freely, without the restraint of facts and figures, it is her story that lends the tale its heat and motion, its aching beauty, its most dramatic and heart-wrenching moments. She learns from her mauma, Charlotte, that Africans once could fly, a fable threaded like a gospel hum through Hetty’s days as a young girl: “ ‘Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.’ ” Hetty, at age ten, however, summarily rejects this romantic illusion: “We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere.”

The Invention of Wings also elegantly depicts the heartbreaking relationship between Hetty and her mother. Charlotte grounds Hetty in a way that no one grounds Sarah. While Sarah collides feverishly with her chilly and immobile mother, Charlotte is a glowing ember at the center of Hetty’s life. After Charlotte disappears, her memory remains with Hetty, who fills her mother’s role as plantation seamstress: “Don’t think she wasn’t in every stitch I worked. She was in the wind and the rain and the creaking from the rocker. She sat on the wall with the birds and stared at me. When darkness fell, she fell with it.”

There is a kind of beauty all throughout The Invention of Wings — passages that force an intake of breath and a languid, disbelieving re-read. In the spinning of a tale that is rooted in historical fact — even the revolutionary rebel Denmark Vesey roars through its pages — Kidd is relentlessly poetic, and readers don’t learn about Sarah and Hetty as much as they stand with them over the width of 35 years.

Savoring that final, deftly wrought passage; shutting the book; and walking away is no simple task because it’s hard to let these characters go. For days afterwards, moments in their lives will return and remembered lines will spring forth when they’re least expected. And, inexplicably, readers will find themselves pausing, breathing deeply and wondering about wings.

Patricia Smith is the author of six volumes of poetry, including Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets (for the best book of poetry published in the U.S. in 2012), and Blood Dazzler, finalist for the National Book Award. She is a professor of creative writing at the City University of New York and is on the faculty of the MFA program of Sierra Nevada College.

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