Sue Monk Kidd – The Invention of Wings

suemonkkidd-theinventionofwingsSarah Grimké is the middle daughter. The one her mother calls difficult and her father calls remarkable. On Sarah’s eleventh birthday, Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimké is taken from the slave quarters she shares with her mother, wrapped in lavender ribbons, and presented to Sarah as a gift. Sarah knows what she does next will unleash a world of trouble. She also knows that she cannot accept. And so, indeed, the trouble begins …

A powerful, sweeping novel, inspired by real events, and set in the American Deep South in the nineteenth century, THE INVENTION OF WINGS evokes a world of shocking contrasts, of beauty and ugliness, of righteous people living daily with cruelty they fail to recognise; and celebrates the power of friendship and sisterhood against all the odds.

After reading and reviewing The Secret Life of Bees I started The Invention of Wings with a bit of trepidation, because reviewing The Secret Life of Bees was hard and the book left me more than a little conflicted. Still, I’d heard a lot of good about Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel and it certainly sounded very interesting, so I dove right in and didn’t come up for air until I finished the book. Well, I did have occasional breaks to feed myself and the girls and entertain them and to reload the washer and the dryer, but other than that the book had me spellbound. 

The book tells the story of two extraordinary women. While the facts about Sarah Grimké that Kidd recounts are mostly factual, the life she invents for Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimké is partly fictional. Hetty was a real person and was the slave given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday, but unfortunately she didn’t live past her early teens as explained in the author’s note. Despite this difference in facts to follow, both of them feel equally vibrant and real. Of the two, I think I enjoyed Handful’s arc the most, just because she’s an irresistible character. She’s indefatigable, stubborn, and cynical, but she’s also never without hope—hope for a better life, for the return of her mother, hope for freedom. Handful’s story is anchored by her natural talent at sewing, tailoring and crafting, which she’s inherited and learned from her mother. In one way this is literally true; we learn most of Handful’s mother Charlotte’s history through the story quilt she creates. Quilting and especially quilts with the black triangles that symbolise blackbird wings are Charlotte’s speciality.

Sarah, the privileged daughter of a planter judge, is also quite interesting and strong-willed in a totally different way from Handful. She is not just an abolitionist, but a women’s rights activist too. Kidd attributes this to Sarah’s prodigious intellect which is stimulated by her father and beloved brother Thomas when she is little, but once she actually sets her expectations beyond those fulfilling a traditional female role in Charleston society; this is quickly and completely stopped. The injustice of this coupled with some critical thinking on Sarah’s part launches her on the path of abolitionism and feminism. Her taking up the cause of women’s rights in addition to abolition was especially interesting, as Sarah and her sister Nina are asked to stop provoking men with their women’s right advocating, because it’s drawing away attention from the abolitionist cause, something they refuse to do. This reminded me of intersectionality and how even today there is a tension between white feminists and feminists of colour because the former tend to drown out the latter’s advocacy on matters specific to women of colour. The two situations are not the same, but reminiscent of each other and I found myself pondering whether Sarah and Nina’s refusal to stop advocating for women’s rights to achieve abolition first was misguided or courageous. And to be honest, I still don’t have an answer.

Kidd’s writing is lovely, though I had to get used to the fact that Handful speaks in a patois that is reflected in the writing. Kidd evokes strong visuals and does so in beautiful prose. The scents, sounds and sights of Charleston especially are compellingly drawn for the reader and very much part of the fabric of the book. For better or worse it’s home to both Handful and Sarah, even though it’s not always that welcoming to either of them and its society is stifling to Sarah.

I loved The Invention of Wings quite a lot. It’s a wonderful historical novel and one that really made me think, in the same way The Secret Life of Bees made me think. However, The Invention of Wings didn’t have the problems for me that the former had. Sarah Grimké is one of history’s less-remembered and celebrated heroines and I hope that Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings has put her in the spotlight in a lasting way.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.