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The Invention of Wings, by Sue Kidd Monk.

November 11, 2014

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Kidd Monk.  Viking Adult (2014), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 384 pages.

A “vividly imagined” historical novel about a real woman from a slave-owning South Carolina family who became an early advocate of abolition and women’s rights and about the woman who was once her own slave.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke are two historical figures who have never received the attention they deserve. Growing up in a slave-holding family, they had known the abusive nature of slavery firsthand. Moving north, they became early speakers for the abolitionist cause. When those inside and outside the movement tried to restrict their lecturing, they were among the first to explicitly demand their rights as women to speak publically. It was their duty, they claimed, to speak and to act because God had called them to do so.

Popular American author Sue Kidd Monk has recently published a fictionalized version of their lives.  Monk is the author of The Secret Life of Bees, an improbable, but moving story of a contemporary southern girl taken in and raised by black women. White herself, Monk writes with sensitivity about inter-racial relationships in her first book and again in in The Invention of Wings. Her new novel is structured around Sarah Grimke, the older sister and initially the dominate one, and Hetty, or Handful as she is known, who was given to Sarah as her maid for her eleventh birthday. Sarah immediately tried to free Hetty, but was not allowed to do so. The girls tentatively become friends, but they both are aware of how great the gulf is between them. In the novel, the two women narrate alternative chapters, allowing Hetty to receive equal attention and to vent her anger at Sarah and the institution which binds her.

I am too much of an historian to be totally comfortable with a book that moves so far as this one beyond the factual accounts that I know well. I keep wondering which of the incidents Monk included could be verified.  At times, I felt Monk has at times gone too far in her re-imagining, but she has done what she does well.  For me the strength of the book was Monk’s account of slavery and her story of the interaction of a white woman and her slave. She strikes a delicate balance between the actual horrors of slavery and the agency of slaves who struggle to make viable lives for themselves. In addition, Monk makes clear the righteous anger of slaves and the difficulty of friendship between slaves and their owners. Hetty points out the problems.

People say love gets fouled by a difference as big as ours. I don’t know for sure whether Miss Sarah’s feelings came from love or guilt. I don’t know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved and pitied me. And I loved and used her. It never was a simple thing.

Monk was somewhat less pitch perfect in her treatment of the Quakers and the abolitionists who encourage Sarah when she goes to Philadelphia. I am more knowledgeable about this period of the Grimkes’ lives, and Monk’s minor errors annoyed me as both an historian and a Quaker myself. Friends Meetings make decisions by consensus and would not have told Sarah that she had to move if even one person objected. Women were regular ministers among Quakers, traveling in pairs all over the new American nation and back and forth across the Atlantic. Significant numbers of them were mothers who left their children behind to be raised by husbands and meetings. Isaac Morris would have been too good a Quaker to require his wife to be confined to her home. By the 1830s, when the Grimkes were lecturing for the anti-slavery cause, Quakers had given up leadership of the abolition movement to Protestants who held more conservative views of women. They, not the Quakers, were the ones protesting that the Grimkes were not being womanly. The Protestant clergy of New England were the ones who attacked the Grimkes for lecturing instead of being proper women, “the vine which clings to the oak tree.” Personally, when the sisters were told to choose between fighting for slaves or women, I ached for them to respond “What about the slave women?”

My complaints are minor, however, and should not keep others away from Monk’s ability to tell good stories. The Discovery of Wings is an enjoyable book. I strongly recommend it to all who enjoy a well-told story combined with a chance to learn about women and slavery. This book is especially important for those who care about black women in our past and the troubled relations between us.


The Grimke Sisters, by Gerda Lerner, is an excellent biography about these important women.  It was one of the first books in the field that became Women’s History and a book that led me to return and get my Ph.D.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2014 10:31 am

    I don’t think I’ll be reading this, as I don’t care for novelisations of real people, but the biography you mentioned is definitely going on my library list!

  2. November 15, 2014 12:07 pm

    Good thinking. Lerner’s book may seem dated today. so much more relevant research has been done. It marked a turning point for me. My first step toward being a women’s historian.

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