Between the Lines Book Club: The Invention of Wings and the Real Sarah Grimke

between the lines book club logoIn The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story inspired by the real life of Sarah Grimke.  At first, Kidd planned to write a historically accurate version of Sarah.  she spent four years researching and writing, but in the course of writing she realized that she was going to have to more loose in her depiction of Sarah if she wanted Sarah’s voice to come through:

I revered Sarah’s history to the point I initially became boxed-in by it. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting her venture outside factual borders. The longer she was cooped up by the facts, the quieter she got. I’d read the Grimke sisters’ diaries and essays, and while they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, their writing was rendered in nineteenth century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety and stilted phrases. I wanted Sarah’s voice in my novel to feel authentic and carry some of the vernacular of the time, but I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it. I rewrote her first chapters over and over, before I felt like I’d found her voice. Finding it was all about loosening it. I realized I had to tap into Sarah’s inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless lace, as well as from the time in which she lived. I needed to let her veer off script. I had to find Sarah in my imagination, as well as in history. Doing so brought her alive for me.

The real Sarah Grimke lived from 1792 to 1873.  She was born in South Carolina and resented the superior education and greater range of opportunities her brothers had.  She had a personal slave and got in trouble for teaching her slave and the family slaves to read.  She stopped when she realized that while she would be punished, the slaves would be punished far more severely.

Sarah accompanied her dying father to Philadelphia, where she became a Quaker.  She brought her sister, Angelina, with her and the two became abolitionist activists.  Sarah discovered that one of her brothers had three children with his slave.  Sarah and Angelina worked to provide them with an education, funds, and a sense of family.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke

Sarah and Angelina Grimke

Sarah and Angelina spoke and wrote against slavery but received criticism for also speaking about women’s rights.  Angelina withdrew from public speaking sometime after marrying abolitionist Theodore Weld, who opposed the women speaking about women’s rights as he felt it was a distraction from abolition.  Sarah stopped speaking publicly following a critical letter from Weld, but she continued to write.

Although Sarah is not known to have been close friends with Lucretia Mott, they did attend the same Quaker meeting.  She also knew Sarah Mapps Douglass, but never stayed with her.  Instead of striving for historical factual accuracy, Kidd strove for an emotional accuracy.

 My greatest hope, however, is for readers to take away a felt experience of the story, of what slavery might have been like for someone or what it was like back then for a woman without rights. I want the reader to feel as if he or she has participated in the interior lives of the characters and felt something of their yearnings, sufferings, joys, and braveries. Empathy—taking another’s experience and making it one’s own—is one of the most mysterious and noble transactions a human can have. It’s the real power of fiction. While in college, I studied Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of “the common heart,” a place inside of us where we share an intrinsic unity with all humanity. The idea has remained with me all these years. As a writer, I believe in it. The hope that this story would help us find a portal into that place is the most I could hope.

If you would like to read one of Sarah Grimke’s met influential writings, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, you can find it free online at national

History’s Hidden Heroes: Denmark Vesey

Denmark VeseyThis month in History’s Hidden Heroes, I’m writing about Denmark Vesey.  Vesey is a character in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  We are reading The Invention of Wings for Between the Lines Book Club.  The character is loosely based on  a  real person, Denmark Vesey, born Telemaque, who planned a slave uprising in 1822.

Telemaque was born a slave, with the name Telemaque, in 1767 in St. Thomas.  He was purchased by a sea captain whose last name was Vesey.  Vesey eventually brought Telemaque to South Carolina.  Telemaque won $1500 in a lottery in 1799.  He bought himself, and took on the name Denmark Vesey.  Vesey married a woman who was a slave.  He attempted to buy his wife, but her owner would not sell her.  This meant that all of Vesey’s children would be born into slavery, since by law they acquired the legal status of the mother.

Vesey started a congregation of the African Methodist Episopal Church.   When the church was closed by city authorities, Vesey began planning a rebellion.  Two slaves leaked the plot and Vesey was arrested, along with other suspects.

Vesey was hung on July 2, 1822.  Records show that he was hung publicly, but folklore tells of him being hung alone, secretly, at an oak tree, and this is the story Kidd uses in The Invention of Wings.  Kidd also perpetrates the legend that Vesey practiced polygamy although there’s little evidence to support this.  How advanced the rebellion was remains a matter of historical controversy.  However advanced Vesey’s plans were, he inarguably had a huge effect on slaveowners, slaves, and abolitionists.  He remains a controversial figure today – revered because of his commitment to freedom, and condemned by some because of his willingness to use violence towards that end.



Between the Lines Book Club: The Invention of Wings, by

between the lines book club logoWe had a great time last weekend at Arden Dimick Library talking about The Orphan Master’s Son.  Our November book is The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  We will meet in person to discuss this book on November 16.  We meet in the community room of Arden Dimick Library, in Sacramento.  Join us!

The Invention of Wings is described thusly:

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimkes’ daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Sue Monk Kidd’s sweeping new novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday in 1803, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her waiting maid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired in part by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in search for something better, and Charlotte’s lover, Denmark Vesey, a charismatic free black man who is planning insurrection.

This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at one of the most devastating wounds in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

During the next couple of weeks I’ll be blogging about sue Monk Kidd and about the real-life Sarah Grimke.  Stay tuned, and happy reading!