Sue Monk Kidd, the genteel Southern novelist, stood in a Massachusetts cemetery, staring at a headstone—worn, pitted and discolored from nearly 140 winters. Its engraved words, “Sarah Moore Grimke,” were barely legible. But Kidd’s own words, the ones she whispered in her mind, were clear: If you can hear this, Sarah, I want to do you justice. I want to do your life justice. I would love for people to know about you and your role and what you did.
Sarah Grimke was the 19th-century daughter of Charleston, S.C., slave owners who died in New Hope, Mass., after disgracing her family and Southern city by fighting against slavery, racism, and sexism and battling for abolition and suffrage. She, along with her sister Angelina, became the inspiration for Kidd’s bold new novel, The Invention of Wings.
Though Angelina was the younger, prettier and fierier of the two, it was single Sarah who pulled at Kidd. “I revere her as a real figure, and I revered her history.”
But Kidd found herself weighed down and confined by Sarah’s formidable history; she knew she had to find the woman beyond the facts. “And that was the moment the character came alive for me,” Kidd says, “because there are two Sarahs. There’s the Sarah of history, and then there’s my character.”
In a way, there are two Sue Monk Kidds, too: the New York Times best-selling novelist of The Secret Life of Bees but also the nonfiction author of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. With The Invention of Wings, which has been named an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection, Kidd beautifully weaves her two selves as she creates a novel based on fact that is riveting, compelling and disturbing.
“If this novel isn’t disturbing to people, I probably have failed somewhat,” Kidd says. After all, it is about slavery, and Kidd considers America’s 246 years of slavery to be its original sin—“an American holocaust,” as she calls it.
To even think about writing about American slavery was daunting to Kidd. “I had to take a deep breath to do that. But once I did, I knew that it could not be a sentimental rendering,” she says. “I had to try—the best I could—to represent how harrowing and horrendous it really was in an individual life.”
And just as Toni Morrison did with Beloved, an author whom Kidd quotes, she wanted to make history personal so that the reader knows what it feels like to be afraid.
To that end, The Invention of Wings tells the entwined stories of Sarah and Hetty “Handful” Grimke, the 10-year-old slave Sarah’s parents gave their daughter for her 11th birthday. Though Handful was created from Kidd’s imagination, she is based on the fact that Sarah’s parents gifted their daughter a slave. Sarah tried to return the “present,” i.e. Handful, but her parents ignored the attempt. So, in an act that defied her mother, father, the law and her rector, in the novel, Sarah teaches Handful how to read. Sarah’s father is indignant: “There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat. They would be abreast of news that would incite them in ways we could not control,” he tells Sarah. “Yes, it’s unfair to deprive them, but there’s a great good here that must be protected.”
“But Father, it’s wrong!” Sarah cries.
Over the next 35 years of Sarah’s and Handful’s lives, Kidd details the violence and evil that human beings perpetrate on other human beings, all in the name of God.
“It’s important for Americans…to finally come to terms with this dark part of our past,” Kidd says. “I don’t feel like we truly have done that, or we would be able to look at it a little more cleareyed” and not feel the need to say “I can’t see that. I can’t look at that. That has nothing to do with me,” she adds. “That was my ancestors. That was the norm—‘My ancestors are from the North. Therefore it has nothing to do with me.’ There are all these ways that I think we distance ourselves from this.”
But can a genteel, private university–educated, white Southern woman of the 21st century truly comprehend the life of a young, black slave in the 19th century, as Kidd attempts with Handful?
“What an important thing that really is to do, I think: to put ourselves into the lives and minds and hearts of the other and to see what that was like,” Kidd says. “And at first I think there was a bit of cowardice in me about it, because I tried to write [Handful] in third person. It didn’t last very long, because the voice kept reverting back to first person. And I finally just let Handful be who she needed and wanted to be and wrote it.”
In fact, as a child of the 1960s, who came of age during the civil rights movement, Kidd feels a sense of social responsibility to write about slavery, though she laughs briefly at the mention of The Invention of Wings being a political book. She wants her novel to be thought of as a story about a 35-year sweep of history that was formative and volatile as seen through the lives of two women—a slave owner and a slave—whose destinies are bound together.
Then she notes, “But maybe it has some political aspects in the sense that whenever we write about the past, we’re really writing about the present, I suppose.”
Indeed, that’s the boldness of The Invention of Wings. In so many ways, it’s about America today. And that’s how Sue Monk Kidd can stand at the foot of a nearly 140-year-old gravestone and speak to a woman who fought for abolition and suffrage.
Suzy Spencer is the author of the memoir Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality.