Already on page eight, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd had my mom wheels turning. On that page, 11-year-old Sarah Grimké reveals her mantra for life.
If you must err, do so on the side of audacity. pg. 8, The Invention of Wings
With that single sentence, I found myself thinking about all kinds of things. What, exactly, does that mean in the context of the story? What does it mean to me? Is it an idea I should be living by, and is it something I’d like to teach my daughter?
I had to read on to find out what it meant in the context of the story, and it didn’t take long to find out just what kind of person 11-year-old Sarah really was. By page 40, I suspected that Sarah is wise beyond her years and lived her life with an admirable type of audacity. By the time I finished the book, my suspicious were confirmed.
For her 11th birthday, Sarah is given ownership of a 10-year-old slave named Handful, and Sarah quickly makes it evident that she’s not interested in owning another human being. Though she’d like to free Handful, Sarah’s family makes it impossible to do so, and instead Sarah makes a promise to herself and to Handful’s mother. She promises that she’ll always be kind to her new hand maiden.
That’s where the story begins, and what follows is the semi-fictionalized tale of Sarah Grimké, who would go on to become one of the most notorious abolitionists and women-rights activists of her time. Grimké was a real person, born into a slave-holding aristocratic family in Charleston, and a lot of the story is true to her life. Other parts are not.
For example, there’s very little evidence that Handful’s story is true, yet Handful’s voice in this book is absolutely necessary to establish Sarah’s feelings on the subject of slavery. In real life, there’s no telling where Sarah’s anti-slavery ideas came from, but in the book the source of Sarah’s feelings are evident.
The Invention of Wings goes on to follow Sarah and Handful over the next 30+ years as Sarah grows from an audacious 11-year-old to a beaten-down spinster before, eventually, growing into a woman who can be true to herself and to her real feelings.
And so, I come back to my original question: What does it mean to err on the side of audacity, and do I want to teach my daughters to do the same?
I think it’s a hard question to answer, because in being audacious, Sarah obviously made her own life much more difficult than it had to be. No mother ever wants her children to live a difficult life, and Sarah’s audaciousness definitely added hardship to her days.
With that being said, though, Sarah also believed in something, stayed true to herself, and made a difference in the world. She may have made life more difficult for herself, but in some way she also may have made life easier for others. If my children have half of the compassion of Sarah I’ll be happy, and I always hope my girls can live their lives true to themselves and with no regrets.
To me, bravery is much more important than taking the easy road, and I hope my girls can always stand up in the face of adversity and be courageous. That will take some audacity, and I’d rather have them be audacious than cowardly. I only hope I can instill the kinds of ideals Sarah displayed in my children.
At the end of the book, Sue Monk Kidd revealed in the author’s note that Sarah may have been quite as courageous in real life as she had been portrayed in the book. For example, at times, the real-life Sarah Grimké took time to come around to bravery. After reading the author’s note I took a few minutes to ask myself: Does this revelation make a difference about how I feel toward Sarah’s character?
And the truth was, it didn’t. In both The Invention of Wings and in real life, Sarah eventually came around to follow her heart and believe in her dreams, despite having all odds stacked against her.
I haven’t had a chance to look into the work of Sarah Grimké yet, but I think I definitely will in the future. Together with her sister Angelina, the real-life Sarah wrote several pamphlets and gave many speeches to packed audiences. Below you’ll find just a few related readings. (The second is free on Amazon!)