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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings

This is a very hard review to write, and it has morphed into more of a discussion with myself than strictly a review. I must start by saying that I absolutely enjoyed the book. The storytelling is excellent and I very much wanted to pick the book up and to keep on reading. The writing is excellent. I found it very easy to get drawn into the story and the pages flew by. But… well, I’ll try and explain.

The Invention of Wings is inspired by the real-life Sarah Grimké, a nineteenth century anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah came from a slave-owning family and during her difficult childhood she developed passionate ideals against slavery, which she passed onto her younger sister Angelina. The pair became infamous in the 1830s for speaking publicly and publishing against slavery and for equality. They are unfairly forgotten today and their biography is wonderful material for a novel.

The story itself is told from the perspective of Sarah and her maid Hetty, or Handful, her actual given name. Handful is given to Sarah on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, an act of property transference that she finds repugnant. Her attempt to sign a manumission contract fail and she realises that she has very little power or self-determination of her own. As she matures into a young woman this realisation becomes ever clearer. Her dreams of becoming a lawyer are not just thwarted but destroyed, and her family treats her as if she is a naughty child. The many knockbacks she endures exacerbate a speech difficulty she developed during childhood, which itself stemmed from witnessing the brutal punishment of one of the family’s slaves.

Some of the scenes are shocking; the inhumanity of owning a person as property and exacting wicked punishments upon their body by right of that ownership has lost none of its power to disturb me. Sarah’s loss of voice after witnessing one such example is incredibly expressive. She describes it as her earliest memory; her happiness at spelling out words with her brother is shattered as Rosetta, an older slave, is dragged from the house and whipped, lash after vicious lash. Sarah repeats the words she was learning over and over in her mind as she runs from the scene. Later, when she is brought home and her mother demands that she promises never to run away again, Sarah is mute. This affliction comes and goes with various degrees of severity throughout her life. It’s a powerful way of documenting Sarah’s struggles, and plays nicely with her desire to speak about the wrongs she sees around her. Later on when she is penning anti-slavery pamphlets the contrast with the fluency and relief she finds in the written word reminded me that access to literacy is so important. Although Sarah is in a privileged position within society because of her whiteness, she is still disadvantaged by her gender and speech impediment. Through the written word she can make her voice heard clearly. Sarah too understood this at an early age, teaching Handful to read and write.

Another thing that struck me was the smugness and self-satisfaction with which Mrs Grimké regards herself as a slave-owner. She boasts that her slaves are happy because they sing and laugh, never considering, as Sarah does, that this is about survival not contentment. Handful’s mother Charlotte steals a bolt of cloth from the house, knowing that getting caught will mean punishment. Her reason for doing so is because she could – and that got me thinking hard. Obviously not doing it would have avoided the inevitable pain upon detection, but why settle for the relatively easy way? Where would keeping your head down and following the rules get you? It’s not a fair and equitable society in which Charlotte exists, so why not take the cloth? It did at least aggravate Mrs Grimké for a time.

Handful is a brilliant character. She has her mother’s talent and skill for needlework as well as her inner strength and courage to know her own worth. There’s a wonderful scene in which Sarah catches Handful using her indoor bath, a strictly forbidden act. Sarah is indignant initially, the trespass disrupting even her tolerance, but it is a fleeting feeling. Sarah sees clearly Handful’s conviction that she was worth such an indulgence. I like this scene because it forces Sarah to reassess her anti-slavery sentiments, pushing her towards understanding the fundamental equality between the two young women. It is also powerful because it shows Handful taking a huge risk by indulging in something so simple as a bath – why should she not bathe in a tub with hot water?

So I truly enjoyed the story and in particular I wanted to know what happened to Handful after the book ended. There is an Author’s Note at the end, and it is there that my enjoyment of the book came a little unstuck. The next couple of paragraphs are potentially (very mildly) spoilerish, but in retrospect I wish I had read the Note before the beginning the story.

Hetty was Sarah’s maid, but beyond a few years she disappears from the historical record; she died at a young age. Sarah did teach Hetty to read, earning the ire of her family, but the rest of their relationship is imagined. I was so invested in Handful’s story that this came as quite a blow to me. It also made me question what part her narrative was playing in the book. Whilst I was reading the book I occasionally wondered about how the two narratives were connected. Despite being inspired by the Grimkés, I thought that Handful’s story was the stronger and more powerful. She became the main character for me somewhere along the book. I understood her struggle as a catalyst for Sarah’s endeavours; without this amazing woman in her life I was left wondering who else inspired Sarah on.

Sarah’s speech impediment is fictitious too, as is an episode from the latter part of the book where Sarah and Angelina live in Sarah Mapps Douglass’ attic after being shunned by the Quaker community. I was left feeling that some of what I most loved about the lives I’d been reading about had been taken away from me.
The historian part of me does like to know the ‘truth’ behind the stories but I’m in no way opposed to historical novels having made-up things in them. The problem for me, and this is very personal, is that I feel that the novel shifted under my feet. I’d have liked to know up front that Handful was a fictional character. Alternatively, the story could have drawn from the lives of the Grimké sisters without using them as actual characters. That way the line between history and story would have been less blurred. Wrongly, I assumed that the main characters, and Handful is a (the) main character, were drawn from life. That assumption, when corrected, left me feeling bereft somehow.

And this is my dilemma. The writing is wonderful, the story is excellent, and the storytelling is beautifully done. So, I’m not criticising the book really, I’m rueing the distance between the story I thought was being told and the one that actually was.

I’ll stop rambling on, and I apologise that my thoughts are not very clearly expressed here. I feel inspired to find out more about the real Sarah and Angelina Grimké. I’d also really like to read some of the books Sue Monk Kidd used as research material; the bibliography at the back is a great addition. There are some beautiful details that I haven’t yet mentioned, such as the story quilt Charlotte creates. I think The Invention of Wings would be an excellent book to read for discussion, as there is so much to draw out from it. So far I’ve avoided reading what other people thought about, as I was having enough trouble sorting out my own thoughts! But now I’ve managed to write them up, however incoherently, I’m off to read a whole load of reviews.

The Invention of Wings has just been published by Tinder Press in Hardback and eBook. My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy.


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