“The Invention of Wings” is set between 1811 and 1838 and tells the tale of slavery in the South of America from two viewpoints, that of the slave, and that of a white girl from a slave-holding family, a girl who sees the cruelty endured by the slaves for what it is but, because of society, feels “alone in the world with my alien ideas.”
That girl is Sarah Grimke, a famous abolitionist who can be read about on Wikipedia. This work of fiction starts with her being 11 and offered a slave called Handful. She refuses the gift. This, as the blurb says, is where the trouble begins.
From there Sarah realises that she too is enslaved in certain things – “at the age of eleven I owned a slave I couldn’t free.” She is also prevented from being who she wants to be because she is a woman. “If Sarah were a boy, she would be the greatest jurist in South Carolina!” her father says. But “for a woman to aspire to be a lawyer – well, possibly, the world would end.” And her slave Handful summed it up best of all by saying “my body might be slave, but not my mind, for you, it’s the other way round.”
So Sarah goes through her life with her alien ideas, which she also influences upon her younger sister and goddaughter Nina Grimke. Eventually she comes upon her purpose in life, “we can’t accept slavery, it must end. That’s what I was born for.” This is where she, with the help of Nina, discovers her wings – “I saw how cunning the Fates had been. Nina was one wing, I was the other.” Meanwhile Handful’s wings are still clipped. With the slaves having failed in a revolt she is still enslaved back in Charleston at the Grimke’s home.
Sarah and Nina then become famous, or infamous, speakers across the North of America on issues around abolition and women’s rights which leads to them getting ostracised. They “could no longer set foot in Charleston without fear of imprisonment.”
And onto the ending which sees Handful no longer being able to face being a slave for the rest of her days and so planning to make an audacious and dangerous escape with her sister Sky - “We gonna leave here or die trying” – as they want to finally discover their wings.
Overall this is a good work of fiction bringing slavery to life. The voices are good too as Handful sounds like how you’d imagine a slave to sound, and Sarah more the “daughter of Judge John Grimke – a Southern patriot, a slaveholder, an aristocrat” although without the pro-slavery elements of course. In the author’s note at the end the author says she was inspired by the words of Professor Julian Lester, “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 in the heart our own.” And that is what this book does.
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