I absolutely loved Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, so I had been meaning to read her latest offering for quite a while, but never seemed to get around to it. Then, it was fortuitously chosen as the July pick for a book club I do with a few girlfriends. I had read a lot of positive reviews of the book, and since I’m a fan of historical fiction, I was expecting to enjoy the book. What I did not expect was to become so captivated by the stories of Sarah and Handful Grimké! As soon as I cracked open my copy of The Invention of Wings, I was transported into Sarah and Handful’s worlds.
Sarah is a daughter of one of the prominent families in Charleston’s planter class – basically members of elite society. She is morally against slavery, but she realizes there is not much she can do while living in Charleston, as slavery is very deep-rooted in the South. Sarah has a thirst for knowledge and a longing to be a judge, like her father. However, her intelligence is suppressed because she is a female. Sarah struggles with the hypocrisy displayed by her father and brothers, and realizes that as a woman, she will always be tethered to a man and his needs.
“When I’d espoused my anti-slavery views during those dinner table debates, Father beaming and spurring me on, I’d thought he prized my position. I’d thought he shared my position, but it hit me suddenly that I’d been the collared monkey dancing to his master’s accordian.”
Handful is the slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. She and her mother, Charlotte, are just two of the many slaves that live and work on the Grimké estate. Handful, like Sarah, is also intelligent and ambitious. But, she lives in a very different world from Sarah, and learns to restrain her desires for freedom. Handful becomes adept at “playing the game” so to speak – being able to smile and kowtow to white people, while at the same time cradling her hopes and dreams inside.
“I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind for what I know is me”
Alternatively narrated by Sarah and Handful, the story follows their intersecting lives and complicated relationship from 1803 to 1838. By the laws of the time, Sarah is the master and Handful must obey her every wish and command. But, because of Sarah’s deep abhorrence of the practice of slavery, she cannot bring herself to rule over Handful, and instead tries to free her. When this fails, she secretly teaches her how to read; illegal at the time. Handful, at times resenting Sarah’s status as a white woman, still begrudgingly cares for her.
The Invention of Wings juxtaposes these two women’s stories, and you’re able to see how similar they are, even though their skin color is different. For example, both Sarah and Handful yearn for freedom – Sarah to be free to choose her vocation, and Handful to be free from slavery. Both women lose a parent around the same time. Both women become involved in rebellious activity. Of course, there are stark differences too. Sarah has the freedom to leave Charleston, and travels by boat to Philadelphia. Handful has to be content with just watching the boats in Charleston’s harbors and dreaming of one day leaving. Sarah, as a white woman, is considered a human being, while Handful, and all other Negros, are valued as goods.
Obviously a huge topic of this book was slavery. Kidd discusses the daily workings of a Southern estate and how slaves were used in various functions. However, she also provides, at times horrifying, detail about the punishment tactics used by whites to ensure slaves stayed in their place; e.g. whippings, the Work House treadmill, the collar/foot contraption. While these were hard to read, it is also important to be aware of these atrocities, as they are part of American history. Another subject Kidd discusses is how Sarah’s interest in the abolitionist cause naturally segued into the suffragette movement. I’m sure most of us never think of the two as so closely connected, but they were and it was interesting to learn more about how that came about, especially for Sarah. Kidd also touches on an issue that America is still dealing with today: discrimination of skin color.
” ‘It has come as a great revelation to me’, I wrote to her, ‘that abolition is different from the desire for racial equality. Color prejudice is at the bottom of everything. If it is not fixed, the plight of the Negro will continue long after abolition.’ “
How true and profound. Because that discrimination was not rooted out appropriately at the time, we are still seeing repercussions almost 200 years later.
The Invention of Wings is a beautiful and uplifting story of two women trying to fly above the worlds they live in and find freedom. More than anything, this books shows what it was like to be a woman in the 1800s, both from a black and white perspective. I absolutely loved it and could not put it down. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about American history, this is definitely a great read!
*Note about Kindle edition: I usually buy Kindle editions of books, but the reviews on Amazon were overwhelmingly negative. It seems that, since this is an Oprah Book Club book, the Kindle edition includes her notes inline, which can be very distracting. For that reason, I purchased the Hardcover edition, which did not have any notes.