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Heroine the weak link in abolitionist story

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These wings fly, but not always high.

American author Sue Monk Kidd is best known for her 2002 historical novel, The Secret Life of Bees, which was set in the U.S. South in the 1960s.

In The Invention of Wings, her third novel, Kidd revisits the South for inspiration. She recreates the life of Sarah Grimké, a mid-19th-century woman born into a rich South Carolina slaveholding family in Charleston who later became a famous — some would say infamous — activist for abolition and women's rights.

Like the recent movie 12 Years a Slave, Monk successfully portrays the many ways in which slaves were degraded and dehumanized by owners who deluded themselves into thinking they had their property's best interests at heart.

At one point, Sarah's mother punishes a slave by having her leg bent backwards and tied to her neck with a belt for an hour, feeling it a punishment less cruel than a whipping.

Tied in with Sarah's story is the tale of Hetty (Handful) Grimké, a family-owned slave given as a birthday gift to 11-year-old Sarah when Handful herself is only 10. (In an afterword to the novel, Kidd notes that although the character of Handful is fictional, Grimké family records note that Sarah actually did receive a 10-year-old slave as a gift for her 11th birthday.)

When the horrified Sarah, who describes herself as having "mutinous ideas, ravenous intellect and funny looks," protests that she wants no part in owning a fellow human being, her mother responds, "I don't know where you get these alien ideas. This is our way of life, dear one, make your peace with it."

Handful and Sarah are drawn together by a shared sense of injustice — Sarah despises the slaveholding way of life and chafes at the limits set on her as a female. Handful hates being a slave and longs for a world outside of service to the Grimkés.

Despite the differences between them, they form a solid, if pragmatic, friendship. As Handful describes it, "She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her."

Neither Sarah nor Handful can see a way of breaking free of the rigid social restrictions set upon them. But after Handful's crafty and rebellious mother manages to make Sarah promise to one day help Handful obtain her freedom, a chain of events is set in motion that will shape the lives of both Sarah and Handful forever.

Kidd, who grew up in small-town Georgia, peoples her novel with several other real historical figures in the abolitionist movement. These include Quaker minister Lucretia Mott, former slave-turned-rebel Denmark Vesey and Sarah Grimké's sister Angelina.

Her portrayals of these individuals are both believable and compelling.

Unfortunately, Kidd falters in her portrayal of Sarah. Though she accurately chronicles many of her actual accomplishments, the character comes across as rather clichéd and predictable.

In contrast, readers will enjoy rooting for Handful, who is fiery, unique and perceptive.

At times, readers may be tempted to draw parallels between Wings and 2011's bestselling novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which explores the relationships between privileged whites and black domestic servants in the 1960s rural American South.

But while Wings is well-plotted and has an intriguing storyline, the novel doesn't quite match the emotional complexity of The Help or Kidd's previous novels.

 

Winnipeg writer Kathryne Cardwell works for the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A1

History

Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 8:10 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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