THE INVENTION OF WINGS. By Sue Monk Kidd. Viking. 373 pages. $27.95.

Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote the popular “The Mermaid Chair” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” has now published a new novel based on research she did on the wealthy Grimke family who lived in Charleston in the 1800s. (The gracious Grimke house, now called the Blake House, still stands on East Bay Street.)

The story begins on Sarah Grimke’s 11th birthday, when she is given the ownership of a slave, 10-year old Hetty “Handful” Grimke, who will be her personal maid. Sarah does not want to own anybody but has no choice.

Little is known of Hetty’s life, but Kidd has fleshed it out and fictionalized it, creating an obstinate, fiery and heartbreaking character with a desperate wish to be free. Her “Mauma” is also a rebel and a slave in the same household. They suffer unbelievably cruel punishments, way beyond beatings and whippings.

Kidd has written a searing tale of the brutality and cruelty of that time, and her graphic descriptions are not for the faint of heart.

Interwoven into the story are the lives of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who moved North, became Quakers and activists and fought for emancipation and women’s suffrage.

Although the author was initially inspired to write about the sisters and their work, it is Hetty who takes over the story and stays in our hearts and minds.

“The Invention of Wings” is a sensitive and intense work about a shameful period of American history.

Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.