The Invention of Wings

This powerful novel by the author of The Secret Life of Bees is even stronger than that best-seller. Set mostly in the early 19th century in Charleston, S.C., The Invention of Wings is based loosely on the lives of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina. They were pioneer abolitionists and women's-rights activists, despite having grown up in a wealthy slave-owning family in which women were expected to leave worldly matters to men. Two other remarkable women, a slave named Charlotte and her daughter, Handful, also figure prominently. The tale covers 35 years beginning in 1803, when 11-year-old Sarah, who loathes slavery, is given 10-year-old Handful as her personal slave. In alternating chapters, Sarah and Handful tell their stories, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a society that holds slavery to be its God-given right, while imprisoning its own women in misogynistic social codes. The novel is anything but a polemic, however. Sarah and, especially, Handful are fully realized characters, and others in the story, including Charlotte and Angelina, also leap vividly to life. And, by reintroducing us to the Grimké sisters, the novel shines a light on two courageous women whose importance should be recognized once and for all.