According to Kidd, she had been wanting to tell a sister story when she came upon information about the historical Sarah Grimke and her sister Nina, who, despite (or because of) being raised on a Charleston plantation with slaves in the early 1800's, became outspoken speakers and writers against slavery. Their abolitionist views were so strong that both woman were forbidden to return to their hometown. Even the Quaker faith that they embraced in adulthood found their independent nature and personal desires for women's rights to be too extreme. Kidd felt the two sisters would be ideal for her next book, and when she learned that Sarah Grimke had been "given" a young slave named Hetty as a eleventh birthday gift - a gift that Sarah attempted to refuse, Sue Monk Kidd knew she had found a method for writing the novel. The real Hetty died as a young teen, but Kidd recreates her as Hetty "Handful" the smart, strong-willed daughter of house slave
Charlotte, a seamstress so talented that she is allowed to have her own sewing business on the side.
Much of the magic and tragedy in the book is told through the relationship between Handful and her mother, and the special tales Charlotte tells as she recreates her life in the patches of a story quilt. Sarah and Hetty are the narrators of the book, and their alternating voices move the story along at a vibrant pace. Beginning when both are children and then continuing for over 35 years, the stories shows how slavery and the mores of the time affect both women, making both women prisoners, although in different ways. Sarah teachers Hetty to read, but both suffer consequences because of that choice, and for a while their worlds actually narrow, not expand, as a result. In the book, it is Hettie's life that helps shape Sarah's stand against slavery. What we read about is a complex bond, a relationship more powerful than a simple friendship. When I learned that there was not a "real Sarah/Hetty connection," at least not an adult one, I was disappointed. However, I understand the historical fiction writer's choice to use one character (Hetty) as a vehicle to explain just how two Southern girls like Sarah and her younger sister Nina could take such a powerful stand against the evil of slavery. If you normally borrow your books, instead of buying them, you may be waiting a while to get your hands on a copy of this book, but I recommend you try!
This is a powerful read. Actually, I listened to an audio version of The Secret Life of Bees and with such strong narrators in Sarah and Hetty, I think that listening to this story would be a great way to experience The Invention of Wings. May Charlotte, Hetty, Sarah, and Nina continue to fly.