The first thought I had after finishing Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, The Invention of Wings, was that it can often take a lifetime to find your voice and the courage to use it. Sarah Grimké would no doubt agree; Kidd’s fictionalized account of the lives of the first American women abolitionists Sarah Grimké and her sister Angelina (Nina) is by turns touching, disturbing, and enlightening, pointing out the almost insurmountable difficulties and painful consequences involved in taking a stand in life and fighting for what you believe in. It is impossible not to be moved by this novel; the writing evokes both questions and the desire to make (some) sense of what must have been a horrific existence for the slaves in Charleston South Carolina in the 19th century (1803-1838). Despite being ‘protected’ by the wealthy families who owned them, the slaves’ lives and daily treatment depended upon the whims and moods of their owners. Their psychological well-being and physical comfort did not matter at all. Punishment was meted out rather arbitrarily for minor infractions, e.g. the Missus was having a bad day and one of her slaves ’disobeyed’ her orders, wasn’t listening properly, or was too slow in responding. The actual punishments were little more than exercises in the public torture of other human beings, and inflicted permanent damage on many of the slaves who suffered these tortures. It is established very early on in the novel that Sarah wishes to have no part in the ownership of another human being—in her case, 10-year old Handful (Hetty) who becomes Sarah’s slave against her wishes, forced upon her by her family on her 11th birthday. Sarah does not want to be like her family at all, but she is trapped within it. One might think that the desire to treat another human being the way one would wish to be treated, would be simple enough to achieve within one’s own family. One might expect that one’s family (churchgoers and law-abiding citizens) would support you in your quest to treat other human beings, who happen to be non-white, fairly and kindly. But that is not the case in Sarah’s family (or in society at large). Their cruelty knows no bounds, toward slaves who endure the physical cruelties, and toward their enlightened daughters Sarah and Nina who must endure the psychological abuses meted out to them for wishing to abolish slavery. In Sarah’s case, her independent and outspoken voice becomes muffled after she is dressed down by her father in front of the family—told that her dreams and aspirations of becoming a lawyer are simply out of the question. She is then forbidden to use her father’s library to read her beloved books in an attempt to educate herself. She suffers ridicule in front of her family for her aspirations to make something of herself; her father and brothers essentially tell her, rather cruelly, that she is a fool to have had such aspirations, even though her father appeared to encourage them only when he assumed that she did not take his words seriously. It is after this humiliation, and really the only time in the novel, that her mother shows her any compassion whatsoever and lets down her guard as far as describing to Sarah what women can and cannot aspire to within the framework of their society. You get the sense that her mother does not like that women’s lives had limitations put upon them, but she retreats again behind her mask of upholding the society she finds herself in, for all it is worth, because it is that society of wealth and political correctness that gives her status and keeps her materially-comfortable. Her mother’s role in life was to bear her husband many children, which she did. Sarah’s dressing-down by her father and brothers is followed by the societal humiliation she has to endure when her fiancé is exposed as a serial user of young women for sexual gains; he proposes to them and then tells them that they can now become intimate because they are engaged. After these incidents, Sarah is completely browbeaten and unable to find the voice she once had. She struggles along, as does Handful, each of them trying to find the wings they need to escape their stifling existences. When her sister Nina is born, Sarah becomes almost like a mother to her, and Nina grows quite close to her. Eventually she comes to share her sister’s abolitionist (and feminist) views, which puts both of them at odds with their family and with Charleston society. Sarah moves to the North and becomes a Quaker; Nina eventually follows her and the two of them embark on their mission to abolish slavery. Sarah finds her voice again after many years, but struggles with self-confidence, in contrast to Nina who is a born orator and who does not seem to lack confidence at all. The bulk of the novel is really Sarah and Handful’s stories, and how Sarah steps up to the plate to keep her promise to Handful’s mother Charlotte to free Handful.
Sometimes a person is born with a voice that he or she has no problems using as he or she grows up. One takes a vocal stand against injustice and bullying, against the immoral ideas and situations in society. And then something happens to stifle that voice, at least for a while. Bullying, cruel slander, psychological abuse, physical abuse, a bad marriage, divorce, loss of a job, financial ruin—all of these can destroy a woman’s voice as well as a man’s. Self-confidence wanes; self-doubt rules. No matter what others say to you, the fact remains that regaining confidence and finding your voice again are your own roads, and you must walk them alone. The novel makes it clear that heroes and heroines are never superhuman; they are ordinary human beings like you and me, with the familiar everyday problems with which we all must deal and tackle. They struggle with self-doubt and misery, with depression, with anxiety, with confusion. They struggle with finding their voices and using them to rail against the injustices in the world. They hold onto their beliefs in the hope that better days will come along; and better days do come along, but at quite a cost, for Sarah, Nina, and Handful. Along the way, you will come to really like these characters and to want to understand them. You will come to appreciate how difficult their lives were because they lived according to their principles, as well as how difficult it was to change the obstinate and unenlightened world around them, at that time, and at any time. Our own civilized society still has much to learn about how to treat the poor, immigrants, the mentally ill, the elderly, or those who just do not fit in no matter how hard they try. Those who support them and fight for them deserve our help and praise, not our criticism and ridicule.