Historical fiction can be quite tricky to write – an author who changes the facts to create a better story runs the risk of alienating the audience.
For example, I enjoyed the recent movie adaptation of “The Butler,” but when I learned that the butler’s older son, Louis, had been made up entirely for the screen, it turned me off completely.
Not so, however, with the changes made in Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, “The Invention of Wings” (Viking Adult, 2014). Kidd freely admits that in her real-life tale of three women – two southern white women in the 1880s and their black slave – she changed the slave’s biography dramatically for storytelling purposes. And because the author’s justification is sensible and explained in the introduction, I had no problem with the change.
“The Invention of Wings” sheds light on the little-known story of abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters born and raised in 19th-century Charleston, S.C. It is an understatement to say that their family, their neighbors and their city ostracized the Grimké sisters. The book follows the parallel stories of the Grimkés and their travels and Hetty, the slave given to Sarah on her 11th birthday to serve as the young girl’s personal attendant.
Sarah, the older of the Grimké sisters, never married. Although she was raised in an affluent home – her father was a wealthy plantation owner and prominent judge – she was denied the same education given to her brothers, a refusal she found quite maddening. “The Invention of Wings” details her evolution from a spoiled young southern girl to a well-known and respected speaker and writer. In her 20s, Sarah joined the Quaker faith and became a minister, but in the end came to believe that even Quakers lacked the courage to advocate openly for the end of slavery.
What may astonish readers is not only Sarah’s public proclamations promoting the end of slavery, but also her advocacy for equality between the races. She was a true revolutionary for her times. Her quest for equality also encompassed gender as she came to realize how unfair it was that men and women were treated so differently under the law, prompting her to become an early suffragist. Sarah has been credited with being the first woman in the U.S. to speak publicly for women’s equality, and future suffragists used many of the arguments in her writings to bolster their case.
Sarah’s sister, Angelina, is also shown to be a courageous abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights, but her story is not as well developed in the novel as that of her sister.
Sarah’s slave, Hetty, also known as Handful, lives up to her nickname. She becomes an excellent seamstress and works long and hard for the Grimké family. Hetty develops a special bond with Sarah that persists despite Sarah’s move to Philadelphia, but Hetty longs for independence. The story of Hetty’s fight for freedom is inspiring.
In “The Invention of Wings,” Kidd takes historical figures and brings them to life in an interesting and provocative way. Hopefully, the Grimkés’ place in history will now be assured and appreciated.
Women’s book clubs in particular should enjoy “The Invention of Wings,” as it explores their place in history.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.