In a totally coincidental bit of synergy, Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, “The Invention of Wings” (Viking) — which will be published Jan. 7 — dovetails perfectly with the completely unsentimental look at slavery and the white owners of slaves in the acclaimed current film “12 Years a Slave.”
Inspired by the real life abolitionist and feminist pioneer Sarah Grimke, Kidd takes us back to early 19th century Charleston where we see the forces that would shape Sarah into one of the most famous opponents of slavery in pre-Civil War America.
What gives the book added depth is the fact that Kidd affords as much space — and narrative weight — to the slave girl known as Handful who was “given” to Sarah on her 11th birthday.
“The Invention of Wings” follows these two women as Sarah becomes a staunch opponent of her own family’s slave ownership and Handful is crushed by the growing hopelessness of her lot in life 200 years ago.
Kidd presents alternating chapters in which the two characters speak to us in first-person. Without ever feeling rushed, the tight 359-page novel takes Sarah and Handful from their pre-teen years through middle-age.
The novel shows us that even presumably “decent” white people who grew up in a slave society lost the ability to see the horror all around them. Reading the book, you can’t help but think about the same process taking place with Germans during the reign of the Nazi Party.
When Sarah and Nina run into sexual roadblocks with their own abolitionist allies — who aren’t ready to recognize the more subtle enslavement of white woman — we see how the civil rights movements of blacks and women ran parallel to each other throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
“The Invention of Wings” will get 2014 off to a great start. It should be one of the most popular, and most talked-about, novels of the new year.
(Sue Monk Kidd will make her first book tour stop at the Greenwich Library at 7 p.m. on publication day, Jan. 7.)