When she was 10 years old, her mother told her that when they lived in Africa, people could fly. Patting her daughter's shoulder blades, she said, "This all what left of your wings ... but one day you gon get 'em back." The child was named Hetty, but that wasn't what she was called. "A momma would look on a baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her," we are told. Hetty's "basket name" was Handful.
Handful's "mauma" was a fiercely independent slave named Charlotte, who was owned by a wealthy and aristocratic Charleston family named Grimke. "The Invention of Wings" begins in 1803 when Handful is given to Judge Grimke's daughter, Sarah, as her personal slave. Sarah has already come to hate slavery, and she refuses the gift, but is forced to accept it. Over the years, the two became close, although the divide between black and white is always there.
Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina -- known as Nina -- were among the first women to crusade against slavery, and they were also among the first American feminists. They are real, as are many of the people who come into this story: Denmark Vesey, who led a slave revolt in South Carolina; feminist Lucretia Mott; abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison; poet John Greenleaf Whittier. But while the story is faithful to the history of the time -- and reflects the major events in the lives of the Grimke sisters -- a great deal of it has been imagined by the acclaimed author of "The Secret Life of Bees," Sue Monk Kidd.
The story interweaves the lives of these remarkable women for 35 years, from the day the slave child was given to the child of privilege to the day when one risked her life to save the other. During those years -- 1803 to 1838 -- they experience disappointment, betrayal, crushed hopes, love that does not love back, and hatred and ostracism because of their color or their repudiation of the superiority of the white race. These women are fighters, but so are Handful and her mother, who would rather be dead than live a life of slavery.
Sarah and Nina not only opposed the "peculiar institution," but spoke out against it to all levels of Charleston society. Their attacks on slavery eventually caused them to be banished from the city of their birth, threatened with arrest if they returned. They carried their message to the big cities of the North, speaking to thousands of people, writing letters for the pages of William Lloyd Garrison's "The Liberator," and pamphlets that were cheered in one city and publicly burned in another. Their most famous publication, "American Slavery As It Is," came out in 1839, 15 years before "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
They spoke out for women's rights as well as abolition, which caused a split in the movement. The girls had become Quakers in Philadelphia, but their views were too extreme even for them.
Expelled from the house in which they were staying, they found shelter with a black abolitionist named Sarah Mapps Douglass (also a real person) and continued their writing. It was then that the American Anti-Slavery Society invited them to join the national fight against slavery, and made them famous -- or infamous -- to all of America.
But don't think this novel is simply political. These were courageous, passionate women whose personal lives were as filled with love and conflict and drama as any romance novel or soap opera heroine. So what you get is not only the dramatic story of three remarkable women, but a penetrating look at the bitter conflict that shaped our nation. Kidd, who lives in Charleston and has been working on this novel for seven years, is the ideal writer to tell this long-neglected story.