New look at old evil

Nicky Pellegrino finds maid and mistress were both trapped by their time.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

America's dark history of slavery has inspired a plethora of novels and you might, quite reasonably, feel you don't need to read another to appreciate the harshness and brutality of the times. But in her latest book The Invention Of Wings (Hachette) US author Sue Monk Kidd fictionalises a part of the history most of us won't have heard of - the story of the amazing Grimke sisters.

Kidd is the author of the best-selling The Secret Life Of Bees so you can be sure she knows how to tell a good story. And this one is fascinating from beginning to end.

It is 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina and Sarah Grimke is celebrating her 11th birthday. Her gift from her mother is her own waiting maid, a puny 10-year-old slave Hetty, known as Handful, who is presented to her in the drawing room wrapped in lavender ribbons. But Sarah is no ordinary girl. She has a "ravenous intellect" and "mutinous ideas" and she scandalises her family by trying to refuse ownership of Handful. Her bid to free the slave fails. This is our life, her mother tells her; stop trying to fight it. And so the two very different children's fates are intertwined.

With her odd looks, speech impediment and ambitious dreams of becoming a lawyer, Sarah is never going to fit the mould of a docile southern belle. And with a spirited, defiant mother, Handful seems set for trouble. The pair grow up together, never quite friends but not exactly slave and mistress either.

Both are trapped - Sarah by social conventions, Handful by circumstance - and both rebel when they can. Sarah breaks the law by teaching Handful to read and promises some day to free her. But the story spans 35 years of their lives with neither of them finding their freedoms the way they hoped to.

In The Invention Of Wings there are all the things you would expect from a slave novel: unflinching descriptions of brutal punishments, of the crushing of spirits and hopes, unfairness and inhumanity. But there are also things that set it apart. The real life Sarah Grimke and her younger sister Angelina were feminists as well as abolitionists, which adds layers to the story.

This is a novel about many different sorts of struggle told from two perspectives; Sarah's based on Kidd's historical research, and Handful's, which is almost entirely imagined. It is filled with graceful prose and its two voices are distinct and engrossing. It never glosses over the evils of slavery, but ultimately it is an uplifting piece of literature.

A powerful, inspiring and wonderful book. Get your hands on a copy at once.

- Herald on Sunday

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