ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Sue Monk Kidd, author of the best selling novel "The Secret Life of Bees," takes on both slavery and feminism in her new book. "The Invention of Wings" is a story told by two women. One is a slave, the other her reluctant owner. One strives her whole life to be free. The other rebels against her slave-owning family and becomes a prominent abolitionist and early advocate for women's rights. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, the story is based on the life of a real historical figure.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Sue Monk Kidd grew up in Georgia in the 1950s and '60s. As a white teenager, she watched as the civil rights movement played out around her. These experiences shaped her, she says, and still pull at her as a writer.
SUE MONK KIDD: I think it's part of my history. It's part of who I am. I can't explain exactly why it lives within me for so long and so passionately but race matters to me. Racial equality matters very much to me, as does gender. There's something about these kinds of social injustices that go to the deep of me.
NEARY: So when Kidd first heard of Sarah Grimke, she was intrigued. In the years before the Civil War, Grimke and her sister, Angelina, left the comforts of their wealthy family's home in Charleston, South Carolina to travel the country, speaking out against slavery. In doing so, they also had to face stiff opposition to the idea that women had a right to speak out at all on any issue.
KIDD: Gender and race got very entwined in the 19th century as abolition broke out, and then women began to want the right to speak about it. I think it was controversial, even among abolitionists, you know. And the Grimke sisters were told to sort of pipe down. They refused to do that. They said, we could help the slaves so much more if you would give us rights to speak and act.
NEARY: Kidd decided to make Sarah Grimke's story the basis of her novel. But she needed another equally compelling character.
KIDD: I knew from the very beginning that I couldn't tell the story of Sarah Grimke without telling a comparable story in substance to that of an enslaved character. I wanted both worlds to be there. I didn't want it to be just one side, looking at it through one lens.
NEARY: In one of Grimke's journals, Kidd read about a young slave named Hetty who had been given to Grimke as a young girl. Kidd transformed that story into an incident that occurs at the beginning of the novel. The fictional Sarah is presented with a slave as a gift on her 11th birthday, a gift she tries desperately to refuse. Here, Kidd reads from the book.
KIDD: (Reading) I struggled to pry the words from my mouth before she exited. Mother, please, let me - let me give Hetty back to you. Give Hetty back, as if she was mine after all. As if owning people was as natural as breathing. For all my resistance about slavery, I breathed that foul air, too. Your guardianship is legal and binding. Hetty is yours, Sarah. There is nothing to be done about it.
NEARY: Sarah and Hetty's stories are told in alternating chapters. Sarah is trapped by the limitations of her role as the daughter of a socially prominent family. Unable stop the cruelty against slaves which she witnesses, Sarah develops a stutter. She becomes a misfit and social outcast until she begins speaking out against slavery.
Hetty, who is also known as Handful, the name her own mother gave her, finds ways to defy the system that enslaves her. At times, she suffers terribly as a result. Kidd said she did not want Hetty to be seen as a passive victim.
KIDD: We need to understand that so many slaves resisted. They fought. They freed themselves. They escaped. They worked in subversive ways. I mean, it was not a passive, victimized situation all the time.
NEARY: Sarah and Hetty's lives are entwined whether they like it or not. Their feelings for each other are deep and complicated, as Hetty explains at one point in the novel.
KIDD: (Reading) People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It was never a simple thing.
NEARY: Kidd says she knew it was important not to romanticize the relationship between Sarah and Hetty.
KIDD: Because it is complicated and it's disfigured by so many things: guilt, estrangement and defiance. And yet, in the midst of all of this disfigurement, they cared about each other. And that's very complicated. Can love really exist in a situation like this? What kind of love? What form of love? What kind of a relationship is really possible when you have this vast injustice between them? And can it find redemption? Can you find your way to some sort of uneasy sisterhood?
NEARY: Kidd says trying to get the relationship between Sarah and Hetty right used to keep her up at night. And when she wrote the last sentence, she burst into tears. She couldn't believe she had actually taken on the subject of slavery and managed to write a book about it. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.