THE INVENTION OF WINGS, by Sue Monk Kidd. Viking, 373 pp., $27.95.
Oprah hasn't had much time for reading lately, it seems; it's been a year since her last Book Club pick, "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie." Now Sue Monk Kidd ("The Secret Life of Bees," "The Mermaid's Chair") has reignited Oprah's love for the written word with a new historical novel. Like the film "12 Years a Slave," "The Invention of Wings" turns an unflinching eye on the horrors of the antebellum South, adding an Oprahvian focus on sisterhood, mother-daughter relations and female friendship.
Set in the early 19th century, "The Invention of Wings" is inspired by the true story of abolitionists and feminists Sarah and Angelina Grimké, sisters from Charleston, S.C. It's a tribute to Kidd's imaginative powers that I didn't even realize I was reading a fact-based story until the appearance of Lucretia Mott, John Greenleaf Whittier and William Garrison in the second half of the narrative.
The book is told in alternating chapters, half in the voice of Hetty, nicknamed Handful by her "mauma," a brilliant seamstress named Charlotte. Handful is a slave of 10 when the book begins. The other narrator is Sarah, one of the dozen Grimké children. Handful is presented as a gift to Sarah on her 11th birthday, and so their intertwined, often brutal, adventures begin.
Sarah Grimké is a little spitfire of a redhead. She reads voraciously and plans to be a lawyer like her Daddy, unaware of how impossible this is. Though she cannot refuse the repugnant gift of another human being, Sarah teaches Handful to read. Both are punished for this; the description of various terrible slave punishments is a major feature of this book. Sarah's penance is a spiritual one -- her father's library is closed to her for good.
Born 12 years after Sarah is the youngest Grimké sibling, Angelina. Disappointed, restricted, her dreams of achievement dashed, Sarah demands to be the baby's godmother. The education Sarah gives her charge has very little to do with Jesus, though.
The girls' story eventually takes them away from Charleston, up to Quaker Philadelphia, and into the real world of the famous names of the early 1800s. Whether Sarah will ever be able to make good on the promise of freedom she made in her youth to Hetty's "mauma" is in question right until the end.
In the Author's Note, Kidd explains that though she lives in Charleston, she knew nothing of the Grimké sisters until she visited Judy Chicago's art installation "The Dinner Party" at the Brooklyn Museum. Now she joins Chicago in opening our eyes to forgotten heroines with a well-made and entertaining work of art.