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Originally published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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‘The Invention of Wings’: waking to the evils of slavery

Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, “The Invention of Wings,” tells parallel stories of 19th-century women: two wealthy Southern sisters who slowly wakened to the evils of slavery, and the slave women who cleaned, stitched and cared for them until their own awakening.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘The Invention of Wings’

by Sue Monk Kidd

Viking, 374 pp., $27.95

Here on the Left Coast, we’ve paid scant attention to much of the commemorative activity surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. And yet, 150 years ago, fierce battles were being fought from Antietam to Vicksburg, Gettysburg to Atlanta, with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers soaking into what ultimately was determined to be unified American soil.

The rift between North and South was caused by political, economic and moral issues — and it is the latter, particularly, that Sue Monk Kidd explores in her new book, “The Invention of Wings.”

Once again, the best-selling author of “The Secret Life of Bees” and “The Mermaid Chair” plumbs the culture and history of her native South, this time coming up with a story of empowerment and self-expression in the face of brutal, institutionalized, racial subjugation.

Using the real-life story of Southern reformer sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké as inspiration, Kidd deconstructs the delicately tatted artifice of their genteel upbringing in South Carolina and reveals threads of the coarser story underpinning their household — that of the Grimké family’s slaves, particularly the child who was given as a maid to Sarah when she herself was young.

Kidd uses significant poetic license with the character of Hetty Handful, but this much is in the historical record: that as a girl, Sarah Grimké was given a slave named Hetty, and that Sarah taught her how to read. The act of promoting literacy for slaves was a crime in the antebellum South, and when the girls were found out, both were punished.

“The Invention of Wings” spans three and a half decades, tracing the gathering forces that impel Sarah and her younger sister Angelina to repudiate their family’s way of life. At the same time, North and South were sundering into irrevocable conflict.

Although a lead character in this book, Sarah is frequently timorous. She has her hopes quashed repeatedly by parents, siblings, swains and others as she slowly musters the courage to live her life in sync with her values.

But Hetty Handful, her slave girl counterpart, doesn’t have the luxury of reflection or self-doubt. In her waking hours she is expected to work: polishing, sweeping, sewing, “fetching the dirt” and otherwise serving. Like her mother, who toils as the household’s prized seamstress slave, Handful has a fiercely independent and creative streak. Both mother and daughter engage in subversive behavior (thinking for themselves) that could get them in terrible trouble if they are caught. And eventually, they are.

Kidd incorporates other historical figures in this novel — freeman Denmark Vesey, who foments revolution among the slaves, Quakers Israel Morris and Sarah Mapps Douglas, abolitionists John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Weld.

This epic tale will challenge the reader. Repeatedly witnessing the egregious treatment of the slaves does more than make a strong impression — it leaves the reader feeling the cruel sting of the whip.

And given the unfairness and inhumanity, it is difficult to contain one’s 21st-century impatience with the maddeningly slow consciousness-raising of the 19th century’s white reformers. Nonetheless, Kidd’s interpretation of the transformational experiences in the lives of the Grimké sisters, entwined with the travails of their enslaved servants, makes for an utterly absorbing work of fiction.

“The Invention of Wings” invokes metaphors of flight and freedom, but it is also about grounding oneself in reality — figuring out how to prepare the soil and plant the seeds that will ultimately produce more fruitful interactions.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael works with arts and heritage groups in King County.

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