40 pages 1 hour read

Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


A historical novel, The Invention of Wings (2014), by Sue Monk Kidd, traces the intersecting lives of the abolitionist sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and Sarah’s slave, Hetty Handful Grimké. Spanning 35 years and set primarily in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1800s, the novel begins on Sarah’s 11th birthday, when Handful is given to her as a birthday present. It ends when Sarah helps Handful and her sister, Sky, escape slavery, and Sarah fulfills the promise she made years earlier to Handful’s mother—the promise to help Handful gain freedom. Nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction and the Audie Award for Fiction, the novel was also on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Plot Summary

Divided into six parts by date, each part contains unnumbered chapters narrated from a first-person point of view, alternating between Hetty Handful Grimké and Sarah Grimké. Sarah and Handful’s friendship begins when Sarah refuses ownership of Handful. As an avid reader of her father’s extensive library, including law journals, Sarah understands what slavery means both in legal and human terms, and she attempts to set Handful free. Her inability to free Handful and her desire to accomplish something useful to better the world form her character at this young age. From this point on, Sarah feels responsible for Handful.

Handful, about a year younger than Sarah, has compassion for Sarah’s speech impediment and appreciates Sarah’s repeated attempts to cover up for Handful’s many mistakes and errors. Sarah, an unwilling slave owner, spends most of the day reading to Handful, eventually teaching her how to read and write. This offense leads to significant consequences for both girls. Sarah is banned from her father’s library, and Handful is whipped. However, these punishments cannot change the fact that Handful knows how to read. Handful’s literacy fuels her desire for freedom and eventually helps lead to her freedom.

Sarah’s chapters delineate her growth from her early life as an intelligent but uncertain, powerless child, at times unable to speak, into a powerful writer and speaker on abolition and women’s rights. In her teens, Sarah develops into an uncomfortable belle of Charleston society, but after her father’s death she rejects that life entirely. With Handful’s encouragement, Sarah moves to Philadelphia, creating an independent life—first as a Quaker and later as an outspoken abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. The significant driving force of Sarah’s life is her hatred of slavery. Other than Handful, Sarah’s other significant relationship is with her younger sister, Angelina (Nina). Sarah raises Nina to despise slavery, and Nina matures into a woman who works with Sarah as a writer and speaker on abolition and women’s rights. Twelve years younger, Nina serves as an important catalyst for Sarah’s growth. Even more outspoken than Sarah, Nina completely rejects any other course than the immediate end of slavery. She pushes Sarah to do more and say more than she would under the influence only of her own more hesitant nature.

Handful’s chapters trace her growth under the influence of her powerful mother, Mauma, or Charlotte. An expert seamstress, Mauma imparts her gifts to Handful: her sewing expertise; her artistic, storytelling quilting; and her quiet but persistent rebellion against slavery. Handful’s relationship with her mother completely shapes the woman she becomes. However, Handful has a significant advantage that her mother does not: Handful learns how to read and write. Though they are separated once Sarah leaves Charleston, Handful and Sarah exchange news through letters and through Nina. Tied together through bonds of blood, love, and responsibility, these three women bravely determine to set the course of their own lives—in freedom.

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