The Invention of Wings

Two young women characters guide the reader back to 19th century South Carolina where the institution of slavery affected everyone’s life and relationships. Hetty (nicknamed Handful) is a skinny wisp of a girl with amber eyes and wild braids in her hair. 

At the age of ten, the Missus gives her to her middle child, Sarah, who has just moved up from the nursery.  In this society it’s normal to have your own slave, and one who can mend and sew is highly valued.

At an elegant birthday party attended by the privileged young of Charleston society, Sarah refuses this lady’s maid/slave.  Sarah does not believe in the institution although her family’s life centers around its abuse and brutality.  The Missus walks everywhere with a cane, but the slaves know its real use—to hit them on the head should they bring this lady displeasure.

At first, Sarah seems to have allies--her father who listens amusedly when she argues with her older brother Thomas about the constitution and slavery.  Her other main ally is Thomas who teaches her how to read, Latin and the finer points of law.  Sarah decides they will both be jurists when they grow up following in the footsteps of their dad, a renowned judge.

Handful, too, has allies, mainly her mother Caroline, who is busy teaching the young girl all she knows about quilting and sewing.  Caroline knows that in this rich, social society, a slave who can sew has more power than one in can merely cook or clean or empty chamber pots. Of course, Handful and Caroline must do some of these things as well.

Handful rebels against being a slave in many small ways, mostly to Sarah, who has become both a tutor and friend. At the same time, her mother Caroline after being tortured one day in the yard decides to be audacious and take risks to earn money for her own and her daughter’s freedom. She sneaks out with a fake badge (giving her permission to walk the downtown streets) and finds work for pay making hats and fine gowns.

Handful is terrified that she will get caught and thrown in this horrible institution downtown where rebellious slaves are tortured.  And one day she is found to be missing, but Handful’s quick thinking saves her.

One of the more touching scenes is when Caroline forces Handful to search Judge Grimke’s library for an audit of what they are worth.  After much searching, Handful employs her new reading skills to discover her and her mother’s value in the white man’s economy. While the amount causes Caroline great anguish—how will she ever save enough, it makes Handful proud that she is worth much more than many other slaves.

But it’s the young women’s relationship to each other which is most interesting and convoluted. Here’s how Handful described her closeness to Sarah, “She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her.”

For a deeply touching historical novel rich in storytelling and quilting, try this book.

Another novel that features both slaves and quilting is Tracy Chevalier's The Runaway Slave; it's set in a northern state, where the slaves have gone to seek their freedom.