I picked up this Sue Monk Kidd novel because the back-of-the-book description was so compelling. The novel is the story of Sarah Grimke, a 19th century abolitionist and feminist. I have long admired Sarah Grimke, who, with her younger sister Angelina, became famous for their public presence amongst the most active social reformers of the 1830s. Contemporaries of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Weld, Lucretia Mott, and others, the Grimke sisters were important leaders in both abolition and feminism. Moreover, they were intellectual forces to be reckoned with at a time when women were largely seen as ornaments, not intellects. Thanks to her careful command of the real history of abolition and feminism, Kidd tells their story exceptionally well.
Sarah Grimke was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1792 and she grew up in a prosperous slave-owning household. As a child, Sarah began to question the injustice of slavery. An obviously bright child, her father permitted her to read the same books as her brothers. However, as she approached adolescence, her parents made clear that her world must be the circumspect existence of a privileged Southern woman of the 1800s. She could not receive the same education as her brothers; her aspirations to a career in law were laughed at dismissed.
Kidd weaves the known story of Sarah Grimke with imagined conversations and an internal dialogue that adds layers to Sarah’s story and makes splendid work of it. The story is powerful on its own; Kidd’s prose makes it exceptional. The novel is structured as a story about Sarah and a Grimke family slave named Hetty, who lived alongside Sarah and whose experiences form the core of Sarah’s abolitionist beliefs.
The novel is told in first person in alternate chapters by Hetty and Sarah. Kidd’s prose is lovely and in the opening page of the novel, when Hetty says of her mother, Charlotte, “Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy,” I knew that this book was special. Not two paragraphs in to the story and I was hooked. The rest of the book measured up to that first page and it was a terrific read. Beyond that, it had me thinking about the lives of women in the 1800s.
As I read The Invention of Wings I also watched the Masterpiece Theater story about the Bronte sisters, “To Walk Invisible.” Charlotte, Emily, and Anne lived around the same historical time as Sarah and Angelina Grimke and though the women lived an ocean apart, their worlds were similarly circumspect. All of them were brilliant and capable and all lived at a time when such women were largely excluded from the public eye. They may not have been rare, but because opportunities for women were so limited, they seem rare. That these amazing women wrote anyway (and Sarah also spoke out at public events), says much about the power of the ideas swirling in their minds. As I read about all three of the Grimke women and watched the Bronte sisters, I felt again how much is lost when women’s contributions are undervalued or downright excluded. Though they lived more than 100 years ago, in the aftermath of the Trump election, the Grimke women and the Bronte sisters seem more important than ever. These women were warned and yet they persisted. In 2017, we should embrace the lesson of that experience.