There is no lack of books about the effects of slavery in the antebellum South, and its lingering effects during the Jim Crow era, pre-Civil Rights Movement. And I've read a lot of them. So I will admit that when my book club chose this book as its March pick, I was sort of "meh" about the whole thing. The one thing that made me slightly more enthusiastic was the author. I'd read The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid's Chair, and I really enjoyed Kidd's style, and the way that she wrote her characters with such care and gentleness, even when they themselves are not caring or gentle, per se.
I should really stop questioning my book club's decisions (with one notable exception-I'm looking at you On Strike for Christmas!), because I got completely sucked into The Invention of Wings. Told from the alternating perspectives of a young plantation owner's daughter and the slave that she is "gifted" on her eleventh birthday, the book explores various types of oppression-based on race, class, gender, and religion-and their effect on both the oppressors and the oppressed. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a plantation-owning member of South Carolina's elite, is horrified to be given her own slave for her birthday, and in her naivete tries to free the young woman that has been given to her as her maid. Sarah is sure that her father, who has allowed her access to his books and has encouraged her to speak her mind about issues in a way usually reserved for boys, will accede to her wishes and allow the young woman her freedom. When that doesn't happen, she tries to assuage her own guilt by treating Hetty, her slave, more as a friend than a servant, teaching her to read and allowing her to speak her mind freely in her presence. Hetty, for her part, has no illusions about the true nature of her relationship with Sarah, and despite the fairly kind treatment Hetty gets from her, she carries out small acts of rebellion. When Sarah's secret lessons are discovered, the consequences are swift and severe, and lead Sarah to contemplate what if anything she can do to dismantle the evils of human bondage and free herself from the stifling expectations of a Southern lady. Hetty, of course, is not planning to wait on Sarah or any other white folks to free her. She is determined that she will free herself. As the story unfolds, and both girls grow into strong, independent women, their relationship changes as they both try to find their freedom.
Far from being a typical white savior narrative, this book shows a much more realistic and balanced picture of the relationship between Hetty and Sarah. Hetty is fierce and outspoken with Sarah about the differences between them, and has conflicted feelings of gratitude, anger, disappointment, and even love towards her. Sarah, for her part, realizes while agitating for fair treatment of slaves that she herself is suffering oppression, as a woman of a certain class, that keeps her from having the impact on the world that she wishes. As Sarah becomes more certain that she is meant to fight against the evils of slavery, she also finds that she must fight to be heard, even among other abolitionists. Ultimately, both women end up saving themselves.