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The Invention of Wings

By Sue Monk Kidd

Viking

373 pages, $27.95

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

What is significant about Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel is not that it is an Oprah’s Book Club pick – and is riding high on the nation’s best-seller lists – or that it deals, head-on, with slavery and the suppression of women in America.

What is salient about “The Invention of Wings” is that it is based on three actual and extraordinary women who lived and grew up on the same Charleston, S.C., estate in the early 1800s – two Caucasian and privileged, the other black and a personal slave.

Yes, the day blue-eyed, silken-haired Sarah Grimké turned 11, her mother placed a gift before her, done up in lavender ribbons.

“This is our little Hetty,” she said. “Sarah, dear, she is your present, your very own waiting maid.”

The year was 1803. Hetty, known as “Handful,” was only 10, headstrong and smart, but now faced with her own mother’s words: “It gon be hard from here on, Handful.”

There is something that Kidd doesn’t tell us till her book’s end that I am telling you now: Hetty was given to Sarah of the historic Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who became social activists, publicly opposing slavery and fighting for women’s rights for several decades of the 19th century. Knowing this enriches the experience of reading this particular accounting of life in the South 200 years ago – and it is information that belongs in an author’s note at the beginning the book, not its last pages. So too does the fact that this is really a young adult novel, a long and compelling history lesson.

But those are small quibbles with a book so visual and so simply told that it is bound to go on to the big screen. Kidd has done her homework, immersing herself in the politics, mores and sheer color of the times.

Hetty, her novel’s most memorable character, stems from her research into the Grimké sisters. “I came upon a tantalizing detail,” Kidd tells us. “As a girl, Sarah was given a young slave named Hetty to be her waiting maid. According to Sarah, they became close. Defying the laws of South Carolina and her own jurist father who had helped to write those laws, Sarah taught Hetty to read, for which they were both severely punished.”

Although the real Hetty died not long after that, Kidd keeps her going as one of two narrators of the book – one Handful, one Sarah, each caught in a web of class and laws she will spend much of her life resisting.

It is Charlotte, Handful’s “mauma” – who “had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape” – who provides the explanation for the wings of Kidd’s title:

“There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this … She said, ‘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 … You don’t believe me? Where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl … They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.”

There are chilling scenes here – atrocities visited upon slaves for real or perceived transgressions, cunning denials of dignity, abusive words and actions, indifference and disdain. In one particularly disturbing moment, Handful steals a look at Judge Grimké’s household inventory, finding the worth of each slave on the estate listed on the last page “right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer, and the bushel of flint corn.”

Although obvious and heavy-handed at times, Kidd’s novel has a steady impact, and a reason to turn each page as the different, difficult lives of Handful, Sarah and Angelina unfold. And if there is a question about Kidd, a white author, creating black dialect for Handful and the other slaves here, it is overshadowed by Kidd’s rich depiction of those slaves, particularly the tough, uneducated yet profound Handful who has, in all of her endeavors, the soul of a poet.

Early on in the book, Handful tells of finding that, from a front alcove, she “could see the water in the harbor float to the ocean and the ocean roll on till it sloshed against the sky. Nothing could hold a glorybound picture to it. First time I saw it, my feet hopped in place and I lifted my hand over my head and danced. That’s when I got true religion. I didn’t know to call it religion back then, didn’t know Amen from what-when, I just knew something came into me that made me feel the water belonged to me. I would say, that’s my water out there.”

But cruelty, of all stripes and shades, appears again and again in this sometimes violent book – and is perhaps at its most odious when it is masked by rationalization. When the Grimké family members, including the Grimké slaves, go to their Presbyterian church, the reverend warns: “Slaves, I admonish you to be content with your lot, for it is the will of God!”

After Sarah teaches Handful how to read, her father tells her “slaves who read are a threat. They would be abreast of news that would incite them in ways we can’t control. Yes, it’s unfair to deprive them, but there’s a greater good here that must be protected … Do not mistake me, Sarah, I will protect our way of life. I will not tolerate sedition in this family.”

Sarah will conclude that her father is “a man who valued principle over love.” Handful will be wary of Sarah’s kindnesses, not knowing “for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt.” Sarah will catch herself, seeing “what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract.” Handful will watch Sarah enter society and grasp that “the world was a Wilton carpet stretched out for her, and it seemed like the doors had shut on me … the doors had never opened in the first place. I was getting old enough to see they never would.”

Angelina, here called “Nina,” will be the Grimké family’s 11th and last child – and Sarah, 13 years older, will become her godmother and mentor. The two will be drawn, as young women, to the Quakers and their open denunciation of slavery.

Sarah will confound the sisters’ mission to free America’s slaves by insisting women’s rights be won as well: “We couldn’t vote or testify in a court, or make a will – of course we couldn’t, we owned nothing to leave behind.”

Sarah and Nina will become famous (and infamous) traveling the country to support abolition and women’s rights, meeting – and one of them marrying – historic abolitionists along the way. Their then-widowed mother Mary (“and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord”) will be mortified to the end of her days. We will cheer. Of course we will.

Kidd, author as well of the touching best-seller “The Secret Life of Bees,” has given us another very fine young adult novel.

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.