The invention of Wings is based on the lives of Sarah and Nina Grimke, two sisters who fought against slavery and who were the first feminists in the United States. Sarah, the main character, is given a young slave for her 11th birthday; though she tries to refuse her gift her parents force her to accept Handful as her personal slave. Handful’s life is the second story in The Invention of Wings. Both women have learned to live with slavery. Sarah because she cannot see a way to end it, Handful because she sees no escape from her situation. It takes the death of Sarah’s father for her to be able to escape her ‘mental’ slavery. She decides to join a Quaker community up north and studies to become a preacher – a decision that prevents her from marrying the man she loves. When Nina joins her many years later the two sisters embark on their crusade against slavery and in favour of women’s rights. They persevere despite the fact that they are scorned by many people. Handful in the meantime leads her life as a slave, lucky to be an excellent seamstress who is valuable to her owner. Handful appears to be accepting her situation, in her head she keeps on looking for opportunities to escape. At the end of the novel she and her younger sister Sky are about to be separated, the moment to escape has finally arrived. Sarah helps them. Handful and Sky are finally free.
Though The Invention of Wings is a pleasant novel, I feel that Monk Kidd missed out on the opportunity to honour Sarah. Monk Kidd explains that she explicitly chose to team Sarah up with Handful; their personal relationship is supposed to stress the cruelty of slavery. Their personal relationship not being a proper personal relationship however it made me feel that I was reading two separate stories. Only at the end the relationship between Sarah and Handful becomes a true friendship between two equal women. I would have loved to have read more about Sarah and how she grew to be such a formidable woman. I felt that the balance between the years before Sarah decided to fight for the freedom of slaves and the years she spends fighting is slightly askew. It is almost as if Monk Kidd rushes Sarah through those all important years. Monk Kidd’s decision to team up both women also had an effect she probably did not take into account: The Invention of Wings at times bears too much resemblance to The Help. I would have preferred a novel dedicated to what appears to be a unique woman.