BOOK REVIEW
Historical novel: of slavery and sisterhood before the Civil War
Luma Nichol
volume:  
volume 36
issue 3
June 2015
imagestuff

Who doesn’t love the story of a rebel? The tale of the Grimké sisters is just that. Two daughters of a plantation-owning, slave-holding family, they defied their roots and society to become outspoken abolitionists and champions of women’s rights.

When I realized that The Invention of Wings by my latest and favorite novelist, Sue Monk Kidd, was the story of the older Grimké sister, Sarah, I was intrigued. From reading Kidd’s previous book, The Secret Life of Bees, a delightful tale of a worker bee who upends the status quo in her hive, I expected a good read with insightful politics. And Kidd delivers. To her credit, she sticks mostly to the historical facts, skillfully breathing life into her characters.

Breaking women and slaves. The power of this captivating novel lies in the first half, describing Sarah’s youth in Charleston, South Carolina, a center of the cotton-growing south. Kidd drops the reader into an 1830s slave-operated household in a city defined by the slave economy.

Her depiction of the lives of Charleston’s Black slaves is haunting. Sarah’s 11th birthday present is her own personal servant, 10-year-old Handful (Hetty to her owners), who from that day on was expected to sleep on the floor outside Sarah’s bedroom.

To thwart resistance, excruciating brutality was commonplace. Handful’s mother is forced to stand for an hour with one ankle strapped behind her and tied to a cord around her neck … or strangle. This was considered a more humane punishment than whipping. The gruesome “workhouse” in Charleston — a grotesque torture chamber — is available for slavers to bring their property for extreme physical punishments. Handful’s foot is permanently mangled in this den of horrors.

Two stories of systemic repression. The book’s chapters alternate narratives between Sarah and Handful, giving voice to two tales, similar and dissimilar. Through Handful, we see acute suffering and daily acts of resistance, like loosely sewing a sleeve so it comes undone when the dress is worn in public. She learns to read from Sarah and is lashed with a strap for it. She collaborates with Denmark-Vesey, a free Black and former slave who planned the most extensive slave revolt in U.S. history (which was brutally quashed).

Sarah’s narrative exposes how both law and social custom enforce Black bondage. When Sarah tries to refuse having a slave as her birthday gift, she is forced to write an apology to every guest at her party. When she pens a writ of emancipation for Handful, using her father’s law books, the writ is torn up and Sarah learns that she doesn’t have the legal right to free a slave.

Sarah also learns that the Southern system was crafted to keep all women subservient, including whites. Praised early on by her father for her intelligence, Sarah harbors a secret dream of becoming a lawyer. But when she reveals this, she is humiliated by her father and brothers. In a chilling discussion, Sarah’s mother tells her “every girl must have ambition knocked out her, for her own good. You resisted and so it came to this, to being broken like a horse.”

Going north to organize. Resistance to the twin evils of racism/slavery and the subjugation of women weaves throughout the book as Kidd traces the northward path that Sarah takes with her sister Angelina, 14 years younger and carefully raised by Sarah to be against slavery and a strong woman.

And there they developed into the historic Grimké sisters, outspoken abolitionists and the first women public speakers in the U.S. They set off an uproar. When their packed audiences began to include men, rock-throwing protesters, churchmen and snide journalists all deride their ‘unwomanly’ conduct. The sisters realized that to fight slavery they must also fight for the equality of all women.

It took raw courage for Sarah and Angelina to address the woman question, because even abolitionist leaders accused them of splitting the movement. It was courageous in 1965 when Clara Fraser, founder of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist party wrote, “The myth of ‘sacred’ white womanhood is one of the focal points of the ideology of white supremacy and ties the struggle for the emancipation of women directly to the Black liberation struggle.”

And I think author Sue Monk Kidd is courageous to tackle this short-changed subject in her gripping novel. She invites further research by mentioning the influence of the Grimkés on contemporary figures like women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott and African American educator Sarah Mapps.

Sarah and Angelina were true radicals in dangerous times, openly confronting racism and sexism in the North and South. They were lifelong theorists and writers, who lived their beliefs. I see them as forbearers in my political family tree. What a thrill to read a novel that does them justice.

Send feedback to author Luma Nichol at lumapat6@gmail.com.

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