Readers most likely remember Sue Monk Kidd as the author of The Secret Life of Bees.
This, her first novel, became a literary phenomenon that sat on the New York Times bestseller lists for 2.5 years, won several awards and adapted for stage and film.
A decade later, her third novel The Invention of Wings seems set to garner the same worldwide attention. Just as in her first novel, it focuses on slavery and inequality in America’s south.
It’s 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and the daughter of a plantation owner, Sarah Grimke, is turning 11. Her mother happily gives Sarah a special birthday present, her very own slave. Sarah, to the astonishment of her family, refuses to accept. Sarah writes a letter of freedom for the slave, but is ultimately unable to endure the wrath of her family, and keeps her slave, a young girl named Handful.
As Sarah and Handful grow up, the story reveals the intricacies of their warm but uneasy relationship. Overtime the harshness and hatred in a society based on slavery eats away at Sarah, until finally, at the prompting of her sister, she begins a personal crusade against owning slaves. Sarah and her sister Nina are in fact historical figures who grew up in Charleston, moved north and became prominent national figures in the fight against slavery, and also for the equality of women.
Instead of writing a biography about these unique sisters, Kidd chose to integrate their story into an imagined fictional world. The character of Handful is completely fabricated as no information was recorded about the Grimke slaves, other than being listed as chattel in a log book of family possessions. Although fictional, Handful is the more fully realized and compelling character, probably because Kidd wasn’t hemmed in by historical facts.
Although I like reading fictional memoirs, or about historical characters placed into fiction, I often wonder if there is something not quite right about them. Do they alter the truth by becoming the new accepted fact?
The Invention of Wings is a powerful story, but fictionalizing the story may have rendered it too neat, sewn up like the storytelling quilts made by Handful’s mother and other slaves. Whatever the case, many millions of people will now know the fictionalized account of the Grimke sisters, especially because The Invention of Wings is, not surprisingly, being showcased on Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer and writer in Penticton.