The Invention of Wings

By Sue Monk Kidd


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Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Daniele


Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.


The Invention of Wings tells a fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke and the ten year-old slave Hetty that she was gifted on her eleventh birthday. From the very beginning of their relationship Sarah did not want to own Hetty or be responsible for her, but they are a product of their turbulent times in Charleston, South Carolina. Sue Monk Kidd weaves a multi-decade long tale in which she gives Hetty new life. In real life, Hetty really was Sarah’s slave, but she died while still a child.   Both Sarah and Hetty long to be free, physically free from slavery and free from the accepted thinking of early nineteenth century South. The story follows the two through their struggle for that freedom.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting into this book. I kept putting it down only to come back to it again and again. I usually enjoy historical fiction, always hoping to learn tidbits about a time, place, or people that I did not know before. I knew nothing about Sarah Gimke and her feminist and abolitionist platform before taking on this book, and I have great respect for her efforts for social justice. Hetty’s character embodied the plight of slaves and induced much sympathy. Her situation was heartbreaking. How anyone could have thought slavery was the right thing to do has always been beyond me.

Sue Monk Kidd is a talented writer, and The Invention of Wings will delight fans. I actually found the author’s notes at the end of the book to be the most interesting information. She explains where her story deviates from history. Fascinating. I recommend this thought provoking book to readers who are interested in learning about a true woman who was ahead of her time and those looking to lose themselves in the Charleston of the early 1800s.