The novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd immerses the reader in two worlds: upper-class Charleston, S.C., and Quaker Philadelphia, Pa., in the first half of the nineteenth century. Kidd, a highly accomplished novelist, brings to life the experiences of both household slaves and real-life abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who also became early advocates for women’s rights. Others have written histories of Quakers during this time, including Margaret Hope Bacon in several excellent works such as her biography of Lucretia Mott, and Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye in their extensively researched Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice. Like them, Kidd did considerable historical research for her novel. While fiction can only draw from a small selection of historical events, Kidd uses her imagination to fill in that selection in remarkable ways.
The story covers the 25 years from 1811 to 1836, narrated alternately by Sarah and Handful, the slave (mainly fictional) she befriended in childhood. The friendship continues throughout the story in the difficult, limited, and ambivalent way required by their vastly different stations in society. They meet when Sarah is 12 and Handful 11, and Sarah commits the crime of secretly teaching Handful to read. There are many vivid scenes, including Handful’s theft of bullet molds from the Charleston Armory to help Denmark Vesey’s abortive slave uprising, and an angry confrontation between the Arch Street Meeting elders and Sarah and Angelina after William Lloyd Garrison published Angelina’s strong abolitionist letter.
Kidd effectively shows the growth of Sarah’s leading to speak publicly and write for the causes of abolition and women’s rights. But for me, the story of Handful, her mother Charlotte, and the other slaves in the Grimké household is even more moving and engrossing. Handful and Charlotte show remarkable resourcefulness, abilities, unbending mental resistance, and occasional acts of open disobedience. “Mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and once you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck.”
Most white Southerners appear numb to the suffering inflicted by the slavery system and believe violent methods to uphold “our way of life” to be both required and moral. A young Sarah laments, “I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil.” Sarah and Angelina’s eventual refusal to accept that system made them traitors to their homeland, but gave them firsthand knowledge on which to draw for their powerful abolitionist work.
Friends may learn how a well-informed “outsider” such as Kidd views some of our treasured history. We might also be inspired, as I was, to learn more about that fascinating time.
Kidd shows Quakers enforcing strict conformity to their way of life. Individual Quakers condemn slavery, but most oppose alliances with non-Quakers to advocate publicly for emancipation. The role of women is larger than in other religions, but most male Quakers oppose full equality of the sexes. Quakers do not appear until the midpoint of the novel (the Grimké sisters were raised as mainline Christians). Sarah serendipitously meets a Quaker who gives her John Woolman’s Journal. After months of silent listening for “the Voice Quakers seemed so sure was inside of us,” Sarah hears it: “a voice broke into my small oblivion, dropping like a dark, beautiful stone . . . ‘Go North.’” She goes to Philadelphia, drawn by what she had learned about Quakers: “they’d put forth the first anti-slavery document in history. They’d showed me a God of love and light and a faith centered on individual conscience.”
Sarah becomes a convinced Friend, followed a few years later by Angelina, her younger sister. Both eventually become the first women speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society and write powerful pamphlets and books advocating immediate emancipation and, later, equal rights for women. Handful’s story continues in Charleston, where her life becomes more difficult after the death of Sarah’s parents and the return of Sarah’s older harsher sister. Eventually Sarah and Handful reunite.
The Grimkés’ work leads to disapproval by a number of weighty Friends. They are eventually disowned by their meeting (in the novel because of their outspoken activism, but in real life because Angelina married a non-Quaker and Sarah attended the wedding).
The novel raises issues still relevant today. What if your individual leading conflicts with your social group or Quaker meeting? Are we aware of the extent to which our comfortable way of life depends on injustice and exploitation of others? After she is discovered to have taught Handful to read, Sarah’s father tells her, “The Grimkés do not subvert the institutions and laws by which we live even if we don’t agree with them.” When to choose subversion over conformity is a question many of us may have to face, trusting, like Sarah, in finding guidance in the Inner Light.