I was skeptical when I first heard about this book, a fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke and Hetty, a young slave Sarah had been given to be her personal maid. As far as I was concerned, the book had two strikes against it even before I cracked the cover.
First, I had vowed to stay away from historical fiction that featured real historical figures, like The Aviator’s Wife, because I always ended up disappointed. And Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the abolitionist sisters from South Carolina, happen to be two women I lecture about at least once every academic year. I never teach about the anti-slavery movement in the United States without including the Grimke sisters.
Second, I worried that the racial dynamics would come across as insipid and insulting as they did in The Help, which seemed to me designed to make whites feel better about their meager efforts to improve southern race relations in the mid-20th century.
So much for an open mind going in. But I ended up admiring The Invention of Wings a great deal. Kidd took great care to make sure that both Sarah and Hetty were fully realized characters, and she didn’t impose an unrealistic, ahistorical sense of sisterhood upon them. For the most part, Kidd resisted any temptation to sentimentalize or romanticize antebellum slavery. She showed it for what it was: a vicious, destructive institution.