Sarah Grimke was a staunch abolitionist. Sarah and her sister, Angelina Grimke, were the first women to publicly speak out against slavery and the first to write a feminist manifesto. They were also among the first to realize that women had just as few rights as slaves. Without rights, how could they hope to eradicate slavery?
Ms. Grimke was one of the most famous (or infamous) women of the 19th century, but who was she beneath her Quaker garb and progressive views? An answer can be found in the pages of Sue Monk Kidd's new novel "The Invention of Wings."
Based on Sarah Grimke's life from childhood on, the book explores her early stirrings of conscience as the daughter of an affluent slave-owning family in Charleston, S.C. Closely intertwined with Sarah's story is that of Handful, a slave in her household.
At age 4, Sarah loses the ability to talk and later develops a stutter after witnessing a slave being whipped. On her 11th birthday, she receives a present tied up with purple ribbon: her own slave and waiting maid, Handful. Already feeling the wrongness of owning another human, Sarah rebels, but is ultimately forced to accept her "gift." Thus begins Sarah and Handful's journey in early 19th-century Charleston.
Even as a child, Sarah knows destiny intends more for her than the life of a proper wife. Her dream is to be the first female jurist, but that dream is crushed by her family and society's narrow-mindedness. Handful knows nothing beyond slavery, and the closest she's ever been to freedom is when she puts her spirit in a spirit tree where it will learn to fly with the birds.
Through Handful, we witness the daily injustices of slavery and its most dehumanizing aspects. She hits us with the realization that self-awareness is a form of freedom. Sarah takes us from Charleston to the North, from a life of abundance built on the back of slaves to a life of Quaker simplicity, where she realizes that having a voice is something worth fighting for.
Set against the backdrop of a national conflict that is quickly escalating, "The Invention of Wings" is a multilayered work. On one level are Sarah and Handful's individual stories, their interactions with people and the culture that shapes them.
On another level is their complex friendship that shifts and evolves as each grapples with her place in life. Told through both Sarah and Handful's voices in alternating chapters, the two perspectives meet in the middle, telling different sides of a story that turn out not to be so different.
Sarah is the white daughter of an affluent family, and Handful is considered a possession, but they are both oppressed and fighting for the same things: freedom, equality and a voice.
Both are strong, unconventional women who rebel against their circumstances. This rebellion is chronicled throughout the book in cathartic spurts, such as when a young Sarah breaks the law and teaches Handful to read or when Handful contributes to a secret uprising whose discovery would mean death.
There is also the moment when Sarah finds her raison d'etre as she becomes her sister's godmother, setting the stage for their future as feminists and abolitionists. Although Ms. Kidd admits to taking a couple of liberties with facts in the writing of the novel, the result is well researched and full of historical accuracies, plopping readers into the early 19th century to experience history in the making.
The rendering of Sarah's early life is based on diaries, letters, speeches and other historical documents. Even Handful is loosely based on a real person. Imagined characters such as Handful's mother help build historical context. As readers follow Sarah and Handful on their journey, they might get a jolt when they witness the characters' first interactions with historical figures such as Denmark Vesey, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Mapp and Theodore Weld, especially as both are first unaware of the imprints these people will leave on the pages of history.
"The Invention of Wings" is such a satisfying read that Oprah Winfrey hadn't even finished her advanced copy before she knew she had found her next pick for Oprah's Book Club 2.0.
Kitoko Chargois is a senior at Chatham University (firstname.lastname@example.org).