When I began reading The Invention of Wings, I thought it was purely historical fiction. It wasn’t until later in the novel, when some names rang a few bells, that I realized I was reading biographical fiction about two women whose accomplishments have been forgotten—Sarah and Angelina Grimké. A third important character, the slave Hetty, is fictional, except that Sarah was given a slave by that name when she was 11 and they both got into trouble when Sarah taught her to read.
The novel tells a remarkable story, narrated alternately by Sarah and Hetty (known as Handful), beginning in 1803. Sarah was born into privilege in Charleston, South Carolina. When she is given Handful as an 11th birthday present, slavery is already so abhorrent to her that she tries to free her slave. But legally doing so has been made more difficult, and her parents won’t allow it. Sarah is her father’s pet, and he takes pride in and encourages her intelligence, but when he finds out she thinks she can become a lawyer, he firmly rebukes her and bars her from his library.
Handful’s mother Charlotte is a strong and rebellious figure and a wonderful artist. She is the best seamstress in town and keeps the history of her life in a quilt she is sewing. By earning money hiring herself out behind Mrs. Grimké’s back, she is trying to save enough to buy the freedom of herself and her daughter. After Sarah’s mother has her brutally punished, she takes whatever liberties she can get away with, including sneaking away to have an affair with a freedman named Denmark Vesey.
As Sarah gets older, her sense of injustice deepens to the point where feels she must leave Charleston to move north to Philadelphia and become a Quaker. She is eventually followed by her much younger sister Angelina (Nina), where they become infamous for their lectures and articles on abolition, racial equality, and feminism.
For the first half of the book, I was fascinated most by Handful, a character with a distinctive voice and personality. She becomes as gifted with her needle as her mother and loves to hear Charlotte’s stories of her African homeland. More subtly subversive then her mother, after Charlotte disappears, Handful visits Denmark Vesey’s household and assists with his attempted slave revolt. Later when Sarah and Nina find their purpose in life, I found both stories equally interesting.
This novel is remarkable. The Grimkés’ story is amazing, especially for their time, which was years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Handful’s story is evocative, compelling, and touching.