Monday, April 27, 2015

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd
Penguin Books  2014
384 pages     Historical Fiction

"We are all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren't we?"

Sarah Grimke is a girl of eleven in 1803 Charleston SC when her parents give her a slave girl, Hetty (or Handful as she is known), the daughter of the family dressmaker. Sarah is indignant. She does not want her own slave; she hates the idea of slavery, but her voice is a minority in one of the leading families of Charleston. Having slaves is just "as natural as breathing." Sarah is drawn to Handful and Handful decides that she can gain some advantage by being kind and helpful to Sarah. Sarah vows that someday she will set Handful free, but it takes many years for that to happen. 

Sarah and her sister Nina, spend their lives defying the custom of the South, and end up in as leading abolitionists in the country by the mid-1800s. Sue Monk Kidd has fashioned her novel, The Invention of Wings on the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were very famous in their day, but whose fame as abolitionists and suffragists was supplanted by others whose names are better remembered. The character of Hetty is based on a real slave girl in the Grimke family, but one who did not survive until adulthood. The fact and fiction of the lives of these two women, Sarah and Hetty, are woven together in alternating chapters. Both stories are powerfully told, although quite often Hetty's words resonate with the horror of the downtrodden. Sarah comes across as noble as she leaves the South, becomes a Quaker, and speaks the truth of slavery throughout the North.

Kidd has very carefully researched the times and the circumstances—the treatment of the slaves is so graphically told that the reader recoils in horror at what was expected punishment for minor infractions, such as stealing food or fabric. As is typical of Kidd's work, the characters are extremely finely drawn, although she may have had some constraints with the character of Sarah, because she had an actual life history.

One of the best characters in the book is Handful's mother, Charlotte, who is very rebellious and clever. She is the family seamstress and teaches Handful everything she knows, both spiritually and creatively. She crafts a story quilt that tells the story of her life. Charlotte tells Handful that "spirits live in the trees with the birds, learning to fly." She tells her that her shoulder blades are the nubs of wings. Charlotte puts small black triangles into her quilt, the wings that she tries again and again to use as she attempts to escape from her captivity. 

Two summers ago, we visited the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and experienced an exhibit of African American story quilts,  similar to the one that Charlotte creates and plays such a significant role in the novel. I could truly imagine what Charlotte's quilt looked like as I was reading because of the example of the incredible quilts in the Museum.

Although my experience with black vernacular and the black experience are really limited, I believe that Kidd's own experience as a white Southern woman with domestics in her parents' and grandparents' homes resonates in her characterizations. For example, my friend Jean frequently says of her mother, "She is getting on my last nerve." The character, Hetty, says that in one of the early chapters of the book. I told Jean that her saying, "She's getting on my last nerve" goes back to the early 1800s in the African American slave community. She was pleased and amazed to know that.

I very much appreciated The Invention of Wings. I appreciated knowing about the life experience of Sarah and Nina Grimke, about Handful (Hetty) and I appreciated learning about an era of American history that I knew very little about. 

Kidd has created a powerful novel full of truths to ponder for a long time after the book is closed the last time. Our book club had a terrific discussion. I would highly recommend it for your book club.

A review in the New York Times.
An interview about the book with Sue Monk Kidd.

1 comment:

Top rated San Antonio Movers information said...

This is riveting historical fiction. Alternating voices of Sarah and Handful tell their stories - one a well-to-do daughter of a Charleston family and the other, one of many slaves of the family. Sarah and sister, Angelina, truly were early advocates for abolition of slavery and eventually for equal rights for women.