Tears are rolling down my cheeks. I have only just closed the back cover of this beautiful and moving story but I didn’t want to wait to write about it. This may be more of a jumble of thoughts than a review, but I needed to get my thoughts out.
Invention of Wings focuses on the intertwining lives of Hetty “Handful” who is a slave in Charleston who yearns for a life beyond the walls of the Grimke household, and the Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, who from a young age knows that she is meant to do something great but is restricted by the societal rules for a woman.
The two lives intertwine when Sarah turns 11 and she is given 10-year old Hetty to be her handmaid. Immediately Sarah rejects the notion and wants to give Hetty back but her request is denied. The rest of the book follows them over the next 35 years as they strive to make a life of their own, but both are restricted by their individual cages. As Hetty tells Sarah at one point,
“My body might be a slave but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.”
Hetty knows she is a slave but only in body. She may not be able to go where she wants without a pass that permits her to, but she is free to her thoughts. Her mother, Charlotte, goes even a step further and expresses those thoughts in her story quilt by sewing her life story and everything that happens to her. I loved Charlotte and Hetty for their rebellious nature. Sure they had to do what their master’s told them, but they didn’t have to do it without a fight. I loved Charlotte and her devious ways of making hell. I loved Hetty for doing what she thought was her right, like taking a bath. Hetty has a huge influence on Sarah and helps shapes the path that she sets off on.
Sarah’s frustration is two-fold. She knows that she stands apart from her family in most of their ways, but mainly in that she abhors slavery. While Sarah recoils from her gift of Hetty, it ends up being the thing that sets her free. Through her interactions with Hetty, Sarah learns that Hetty is a girl just like her, with thoughts and feelings, wants and desires. Sarah doesn’t understand why they must be enslaved. As she says to her sister later on,
“The Negro is not some other kind of creature than we are. Whiteness is not sacred.”
But even as Sarah tries to do what she can against slavery, she is restricted simply because she is a woman. This is noted early on as she shares with her family that she plans to be a lawyer and her father and brother simply laugh at her. Then when she turns sixteen, Sarah is thrust into society.
“In other words, I would take up the business of procuring a husband. How highborn and moneyed this husband turned out to be would depend on the allure of my face, the delicacy of my physique, the skill of my seamstress and the charisma of my tete-a-tete. I arrived at the glittery entrance like a lamb to the slaughter.”
But just like the slavery issue, Sarah recoils from the notion of what society deems fit for a woman. Throughout her journey she is constantly in search of freedom and while each new thing expands that freedom, she eventually finds the outer walls of her cage. What is even more frustrating is that even as a woman, her work as an abolitionist is restricted and thus the two begin to blend. The anti-slavery movement begins to call into question the gender equality issue, opening a whole new can of worms.
Sarah and Hetty are both in search of wings and it’s not until the end that they find them together. I won’t say anymore for fear of revealing too much but it is why I still sit her with a lump in my throat and my eyes brimming with tears. I guess I will leave this with the same words that Kidd leaves off in her author’s note:
“In writing The Invention of Wings, I was inspired by the words of Professor Julius Lester, which I kept propped on my desk: ‘History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain the heart own.'”