Finding a character’s voice can be difficult. Writing in the voice of someone from a different race and wildly different experience is a challenge strewn with pitfalls. And yet Sue Monk Kidd, the white Southern author of such bestsellers as “The Secret Life of Bees,” has managed to avoid both condescension and cliché, creating an unforgettable character in the slave Handful, the emotional core of her utterly engaging third novel, “The Invention of Wings.”
For this book, an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 pick, Kidd again returns to South Carolina and to the thorny topic of race relations. Those relations are heated as this historical fiction opens in 1803, and they play out in the alternating first-person narratives of Sarah Grimké, the white daughter of a plantation owner, and the African-American Handful — a.k.a. Hetty — who, at the age of 10, is given to Sarah as an 11th birthday present.
The two narrators are emotionally entwined early on. Despite her family’s background, Sarah, an odd bookish girl, is appalled by the idea of owning people. When she finds herself unable to free Handful, she instead teaches her to read, which is illegal and for which they are both punished. Handful, meanwhile, learns not only how to sew but also to understand her own history from her tough and defiant mother, who pieces pivotal life events into a “story quilt.” Over the book’s 35-year span, these skills will play into both characters’ search for freedom and self-expression.
The journeys these women make are not equal. Sarah, who is based on a historical figure, rejects her heritage to become an abolitionist and an early feminist, as Kidd’s model did. But it is Handful who has the more dramatic struggle, and Kidd acknowledges this by giving her the opening and closing narratives, each referencing the flying blackbirds that, in her mother’s quilt, signify freedom. Conversational and colloquial, with occasional dips into nonstandard grammar, these passages establish Handful’s strength as well as her distinctive voice. “If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma,” she says, explaining the difference between the name given her by her mother and her slave name, Hetty. Feisty from the start, Handful acts out in small ways, knowing that she will be punished. “I told my backside to brace up.”
Sarah’s voice is less colorful. When she refuses a suitor, for example, she understates her pain: “I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all.” This demure determination surfaces again when she rejects the abolitionist leaders’ command to give up her fight for women’s equality. “Now, sirs,” she says, paraphrasing the real Grimké, “kindly take your feet off our necks.”
Key to both women’s growth is their friendship. However, once again, Handful’s journey is by far the tougher. When, toward the novel’s satisfying conclusion, she recalls a moment of girlhood closeness with Sarah, she has trouble defining her ambivalent affection. “It was always there, a roundness in my chest, a pin cushion,” she thinks. “It pricked and fastened.” Their relationship is complicated, but using the language of a seamstress, Kidd makes it real.
Despite its pleasures, this book does have some false notes, as when Sarah shows a bit too much insight into the life of the slaves, too early on. Hearing them sing, she thinks to herself: “their gaiety wasn’t contentment, but survival.” She is right, of course, but it will be hundreds of pages before she truly relates to her family’s human chattel on a personal level. Likewise, Kidd’s habit of cutting away from some of Handful’s torment — particularly when she is maimed in the Charleston workhouse — may strike some as squeamish.
These are minor quibbles, however: timing and plot points in a work that succeeds because of its characters. Kidd has given both Sarah and Handful distinctive voices. With them, they learn to speak to each other, and, ultimately, to us.