This memorable story is a fictional recreation of the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina who lived in the early 19th Century, and who became notorious for their proselytizing of abolition, Negro equality, and women’s rights. Their story is juxtaposed, in alternate chapters, with that of Hetty (known as “Handful”), a slave given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. [The historical Hetty apparently died shortly thereafter, but the author chooses to keep Hetty alive to show the slaves’ side of the story.]
As a child, Sarah was smart and loved to read, and wanted to matter, but her family insisted she fill “accepted” female roles. Rather than being allowed to study law, philosophy, history, and humanities, she was made to learn needlework, manners, drawing, and piano. Hetty, meanwhile, had much more at stake in her quest for freedom, but both girls suffered from a thwarted desire to be free – one in body, and one in mind, and they become friends. Still, for a long time Sarah just didn’t “get it” about what it meant actually to be a slave.
Even towards the end of the story, when Sarah is an abolitionist, she is not convinced that the theoretical chains put on woman aren’t as bad as the actual chains put on slaves.
Discussion: I liked both stories, but I found the chronicle of the slave characters more dramatic and compelling in many ways. Hetty, her mother Charlotte, and her sister Sky are people so courageous, optimistic, and admirable, you can’t help (in my opinion) preferring them to the wishy-washy Sarah, who, until very late in life, capitulates, equivocates, or compromises rather than fight. This is not to say I would have not done the same, or have shown the “audacity” she finally summoned later in life (her slogan was always “If you must err, do so on the side of audacity”). But the characters I will remember are the free and enslaved blacks in Charleston and Philadelphia, who risked everything, and endured the unendurable, so that one day – in this world or the next, they could fly like blackbirds to a better place.
Evaluation: At the very end of the Author’s Note explaining the historical aspects of this book (and a list of further resources), the author reveals:
“In writing The Invention of Wings, I was inspired by the words of Professor Julius Lester, which I kept propped on my disk: ‘History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.’”
I don’t think I could come up with a better way to summarize my reaction to this book.
Published by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014