On her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimké, is given her own personal slave, Hetty "Handful" Grimké . Already at the age of eleven Sarah sees slavery for the evil institution it is and refuses her gift, much to the dismay of her wealthy, aristocratic, South Carolina parents. They ignore Sarah's refusal and her later attempt to issue a writ freeing Handful. The Invention of Wings follows Handful's and Sarah's lives over the next few decades as both strive for some degree of freedom.
I was apprehensive about reading this book, but read it anyway because it is the February pick for my book club. There were several reasons for my apprehension. I don't particularly like reading or even thinking about the history of slavery in this country. It makes me angry and depressed and I really have to emotionally prepare myself when confronted with such a story. Also, at this point in my life I don't need to read another story (or watch another movie) about white people who suddenly come to the realization that black people are in fact people and that slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, etc are wrong. I get the reason for those stories; I just personally don't need anymore of that. (There's a line in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah that reads "Racism should never have happened and so you don't get a cookie for reducing it." That pretty much sums up how I feel about movies like The Help.) For all these reasons and more, I was not looking forward to this. Thankfully, The Invention of Wings turned out not to be too much about the evolution of white people's thinking about slavery and although it involved slavery it wasn't quite the gut wrenching read I was expecting.
The novel alternates between Handful's and Sarah's points of view. Both have their struggles. Handful obviously literally must fight for her freedom and her life. I loved her story as she grew up, witnessing the small ways in which her mother rebelled and realizing that although her body might be enslaved, her mind was not. I liked that as nice and well-intentioned as Sarah was, Handful did not idolize Sarah or anyone else. Handful was her own person, with her own story and her own dreams.
Sarah's struggles were with her family, the society she was born into, and finding her voice (literally and figuratively). She, and later her younger sister, favored racial equality while living in a society and a house that functions because of slavery. Even her father admits that he understands slavery is wrong but is unwilling to give up the lifestyle that slavery makes possible. One would think (or at least I thought) that Sarah's life would get easier when she found the Quakers. It didn't. Turns out not all Quakers were quite the fierce abolitionists as I had been taught in school. There is a line in the book when Angelina's friend says "Pray and wait," meaning pray that people will eventually come to see slavery as the evil institution it is. Angelina responds, "Pray and act... Pray and speak!" (page 294) I love that line.
One thing I learned from this book is that the character Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina are based on actual people. They were two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina who converted to the Quaker religion and became abolitionists. They did not only advocate for the abolition of slavery; they advocated for the equality of black people which is not something that even most abolitionists were not in favor of at the time. They gave speeches and wrote pamphlets. They also became early exemplars of equality for women when they refused to be silent after being criticized for speaking to crowds that included both men and women. (Speaking to other women was one thing, but men attending a lecture given by woman was apparently considered quite unacceptable for polite society.)
I really enjoyed this. It managed to be illuminating and hopeful without glossing over the ugly reality of slavery. I learned a great deal. I'm really glad the story was told from both Handful's and Sarah's point of view. They could both speculate about what the other was thinking but reading their own thoughts felt more authentic. I absolutely loved the ending. I won't say what it was, just that it was perfect.