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Tale of girls, slavery awes with bravery, cruelty

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

From the opening words that place 10-year-old Hetty, a slave girl whose mama calls her Handful, in the courtyard of a Charleston plantation, “The Invention of Wings” tells a story of strength, sorrow and shame.

For Handful is presented as a birthday gift to one of the many children of the South Carolina estate, Sarah Grimke, to mark her 11th birthday. One child being given another — shameful.

But Sue Monk Kidd's deft writing takes us into the hearts and minds of both of these girls immediately, as Sarah tells her mother she has no need to own a slave.

“I was sent to solitary confinement in my new room and ordered to write a letter of apology to each guest. Mother settled me at the desk with paper, inkwell and a letter she'd composed herself, which I was to copy.”

From that first act of rebellion, Kidd shows readers that Sarah strains against the mold forced on young women of the Southern aristocracy. She reads voraciously, abetted in the early years by her father. But after she is caught teaching Hetty to read, her father decides he's doing his willful daughter no favors and forbids her from his vast library.

While Sarah is going through her own growing pains, Handful must live under the control of her owners. She has only her mother, Charlotte (whom Handful calls Mauma) to turn to — and Charlotte is as willful as Sarah.

Charlotte tells Sarah early on that she must help Handful to freedom, and Charlotte fights against her slavery as best she can. She steals, fakes an injury when it aids her and never lets Handful forget that they are human beings who deserve freedom.

As Sarah and Handful grow to adulthood, they fight different battles while remaining committed to similar goals — Sarah wants freedom for all slaves, and Handful wants freedom for herself and Mauma.

Kidd weaves a fascinating story, for Sarah Grimke and her sister, Nina, were real women of the early 1800s who became the first female abolition agents. And Handful also existed — a young slave named Hetty given to Sarah.

But the rich and complex relationship between Sarah and Handful is the author's creation, and a masterful one. They become friends, of sorts, but Handful resents her position and Sarah — despite her pure intentions — was reared with a sense of entitlement and wealth that are hard to shake.

Kidd, best known for “The Secret Life of Bees,” also creates the rich love between Mauma and Handful. Mauma vanishes from the plantation when Handful is 19, leaving Handful unsettled at not knowing her fate. The love between these two women is palpable; you share Handful's sense of loss.

Most of this book is about Sarah, Nina and Handful. A few men play important but small roles. But this beautiful and ultimately uplifting book is about women and their fight to be heard.

No wonder Oprah Winfrey picked “The Invention of Wings” for her book club. It's a most deserving choice.

Amanda St. Amand is a staff writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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