Before Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there were two other women who fanned the flames of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were instrumental in raising awareness of the movement, becoming two of its most notorious speakers. However, they were also responsible for breaking the abolitionist movement into two factions: one who opposed women speaking publicly to mixed audiences, and one who supported them. Thus, the Grimkés became two of the earliest proponents of women’s rights as well. In my opinion, the importance of the Grimké sisters for both the abolitionist and the women’s rights movements is often overlooked. So I was thrilled when I found out that The Invention of Wings focuses on the two sisters, Sarah especially.
The Grimkés were slaveholders from Charleston, South Carolina. Both Sarah and Angelina abhorred slavery, but growing up they had little recourse to do anything about it. Sarah had ambitions of studying law, like her father and brothers, but her dreams found no support within her family. When her father fell ill, Sarah accompanied him to Philadelphia, where she became acquainted with the Quaker faith. After her father’s death and return to Charleston, she eventually decided to leave her family to live in Philadelphia and convert to Quakerism. In the early 1820s, behavior like this was almost unheard of! Angelina also became a Quaker and eight years later followed her sister north. They were both declared outcasts in Charleston.
The Grimkés’ relationship with the Quakers was not easy. While most Quakers supported their abolitionist views, they were often uneasy with, if not appalled by, the women’s outspokenness. However, radical abolitionists took note of the Grimkés and enlisted them to travel the country and speak against slavery. They thrived, until they began to speak publicly to both women and men. Once again, people were outraged by the sisters’ behavior. However, both Sarah and Angelina had finally found a way to be activists, and they did not let their sex hold them back.
In The Invention of Wings, Sarah’s story is intertwined with that of Handful, a slave Sarah receives as a birthday present when she turns eleven. Their relationship is essential to Sarah’s transformation into an outspoken abolitionist. Sadly it is usually Handful who suffers whenever Sarah tests her boundaries. But Handful, influenced by an increasingly radicalized mother, never stops imagining a better life for herself. She becomes an accomplished seamstress and takes full advantage of the little freedom that this skill offers her. Both Sarah and Handful have a distinct voice in this book, and the reader is constantly reminded that freedom never comes easy. Yet despite their losses, there is hope in their stories.
Nineteenth-century America is my preferred historical era, and The Invention of Wings is historical fiction at its best. While Handful’s character might be the slightly more accessible, I most enjoyed seeing Sarah Grimké, one of the most infamous women of her time, brought to life.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.