Sue Monk Kidd writes that her first encounter with Sarah and Angelina Grimké came during an exhibition of Judy Chicago's artwork "The Dinner Party" in 2007. The sisters are included in a list of 999 important women in history and mythology, their names inscribed on the "Heritage Floor" of the installation.
Kidd, author of "The Secret Life of Bees" and "The Mermaid Chair," writes that she was startled to discover the sisters were from Charleston, S.C., her home at the time. The Grimkés, she learned, were abolitionists and "among the earliest major American feminist thinkers." In the late 1830s they were also, she writes, "arguably the most famous ... women in America."
In the ensuing decades, the Grimké name lost much of its luster, something Kidd aims to change by putting the sisters, along with Hetty, a young slave in the Grimké household, at the center of her latest novel, "The Invention of Wings."
As she researched the Grimkés, Kidd says she found herself especially drawn to Sarah, the older sister, who, as the novel opens in November 1803, is turning 11. Sarah, a child of privilege, has little use for many of the trappings of early 19th-century girlhood. After reading just a few chapters, a reader might wonder if Sarah is well on her way to fulfilling one of historical fiction's most popular stereotypes: the feisty girl who shakes the bonds of convention, persuades others around her to change their ways and, eventually, finds love. But the real-life sisters left a fairly extensive paper trail, and Kidd wisely resists the seduction of happy endings and hews to historical reality.
Kidd alternates chapters written in the voices of Sarah and Hetty, as they journey together and apart for 30-plus years. Early on, the author makes clear that all women in her tale — rich and poor, black and white — exist in a claustrophobic space. The Grimké girls and their peers are expected to spend their childhood immersed in ladylike arts, then prepare for courtship, and finally, move into the sequestered wife/mother role. They are not expected to reject the "gift" of a slave girl on their 11th birthday, nor are they expected to write a document that declares that girl's freedom. Sarah fails at both efforts but secretly teaches Hetty to read, an act of defiance with long-term repercussions.
If life in Charleston proves limiting for the Grimké girls, it is positively soul-crushing for Hetty (nicknamed Handful), her mother and the other slaves who wash, polish, cook and suffer for the Grimké household. Every step, every movement, every thought must be in support of the family. "A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost," Kidd writes, "don't see it, don't hear it, but it's always hovering around on ready." The penalties for stepping out of bounds: a whack on the head with a cane, whippings, torture.
Handful watches as her mother is consumed with bitterness and eventually disappears. She is left to plot her own survival, understanding that her relationship with Sarah offers little hope for a better future. "I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing."
As the three women mature and interact with other real-life historical figures, their story lines are infused with a sense of urgency. Handful is determined to be part of a slave insurrection, interacting with Denmark Vesey, a free black man at the center of the rebellion. Sarah and her sisters abandon Charleston for the North, where they achieve great success as abolitionists, crossing paths with Lucretia Mott, John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Weld, but are thwarted by men who want no part of their proto-feminist leanings.
Oprah selected "The Invention of Wings" for her Book Club 2.0, which may be a turnoff for a certain type of reader, even as it introduces Kidd to an ever-larger audience. But the novel stands out in the crush of new releases thanks to its artful mix of fact and fiction, a powerful reminder of how much official history has neglected the people who changed it.
The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Viking: 384 pp., $27.95