"More and more people are discovering and rediscovering the Grimke sisters," says Sue Monk Kidd, author of New York Times bestseller The Secret Life of Bees, and more recently, The Invention of Wings, a story that follows the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke. And who, might you ask, are the Grimke sisters? Really important Charlestonians, that’s who.
May 5 marks the first annual Grimke day in Charleston and Kidd, along with Mayor Joe Riley, will be speaking at both the Barnes & Noble College Store and the College of Charleston to celebrate the lives of Charleston’s forgotten heroines. Known for their feminist and abolitionist activity during the 19th century, the Grimke sisters are often considered as some of the most progressive women in the United States during their lifetimes.
Kidd first discovered the Grimke sisters at an exhibit in Brooklyn, which listed the names of women who have made important contributions to history. She saw that the sisters were from Charleston, and, as she lived in Charleston at the time, Kidd was surprised that she had never heard of them. She knew then that she needed to write about the Grimke sisters. "These were two women from Charleston who championed abolition, had incredible moral compasses, and endured a great deal of backlash," says Kidd. "Charleston should embrace what they did."
The novel, though, doesn’t just tell the tale of two revolutionary sisters. Set in the decades leading up to the Civil War, The Invention of Wings also tells the story of Sarah Grimke’s slave, Handful. Told from the first-person point of view of both characters and alternating perspectives with each chapter, the novel follows the life of Sarah — based on historical facts and letters — and the life of Handful as imagined by Kidd. The real-life Sarah was given a slave named Hetty on her 11th birthday, but Hetty died a few years later. With this story, Kidd has brought her back to life.
"It was so important for me to write both sides. If I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t write the novel," says Kidd. "It’s important that the story is not told just through the lens of a white family, even if they have abolitionist hearts," she says.
While Kidd reimagines some aspects of Sarah’s life, she sticks to a historically accurate timeline. Angelina is a fairly important character in the novel, but because of the lack of historical narrative available about Angelina, Kidd decided to focus mainly on Sarah. Developing the relationship between Sarah and Handful was difficult, says Kidd.
"The relationship between Sarah and Handful kept me up at night. It certainly couldn’t be a perfect relationship ... it was ambivalent. There was injustice between them and a lot of guilt, shame, and defiance," she says. This complicated relationship reveals itself most clearly in Handful’s chapters, where no matter how grateful she may be toward Sarah for any help or compassion, she is always able to remind herself that their lives are vastly different. Kidd describes the characters as having an "uneasy friendship." "I always tried to keep it a little off balance," says Kidd.
Reading the novel, you get the true sense of imbalance, not just between Handful and Sarah, but between Sarah and society. The layers of oppression pinning down both women is at times stifling — sometimes you wish to shut the book and close your eyes, hoping to reopen them to a more pleasant reality. Kidd may imagine some details of the lives of her characters, but the tragedy of the slave South rings true on every page. There is no grand love story saving Sarah from her abrasive mother and condescending father. There is nothing and no one at all saving Handful from her enslavement. Both women are left to save themselves.
"Even though Sarah was a privileged woman who came from a wealthy family, she felt like she had to choose between marriage or her personal calling. She chose herself and she chose her freedom," says Kidd. Kidd researched the Grimkes thoroughly in history books, but she says that there is no substitute to being in Charleston and walking the same paths the sisters walked to get a true sense of the lives they lived. People interested in walking those same steps can take the Grimke Sisters Tour, which was inspired by the novel and created this past October.
Kidd is excited to visit Charleston for its first Grimke day, and she hopes the women’s story will spread throughout the Lowcountry. "They were quite brave, and they struggled through that bravery. Charleston should really be proud. Embracing the Grimkes is past due," she says.