Friday, January 31, 2014

The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd's latest novel, "The Invention of Wings," languished on my bedside table for months. I avoided it because I feared, especially after Oprah's imprimatur, that it was just another rehash of "The Help," another tale of a white woman riding in to save black women from themselves. Apologies to Ms. Kidd are in order.

"The Invention of Wings" is a great example of a novel that combines detailed historical research with soaring imaginative flourish. I tend to begin a book at the back, just one of my many little quirks, so I read the author's notes before beginning the book. That's how I discovered the astonishing fact that the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, are two flesh and blood women who lived in Charleston, South Carolina, in the 1800's. Ms. Kidd tells us that she drove by their former home daily yet had never heard of them. (note to women's studies programs)

Two daughters in a huge slave-holding family, Sarah and Angelina, for whatever reason, understood from very young ages that slavery was a vile, despicable means to an economic end for southern plantation owners. Sarah was only eleven years old when her parents "gave" her an extraordinary birthday gift, another human being. Handful, an enslaved child, daughter of Charlotte, the house seamstress, shows up at Sarah's bedroom door with a lavender bow around her neck and her thin, rush pallet under her arm.

Despite what you might read in the advertising campaign for this novel, it is not a fairytale about a friendship between an enslaved child and her mistress. The relationship between Sarah and Handful is much deeper and more complicated than that. Yes, Sarah does teach Handful to read, a skill that  empowers Handful to enact her own salvation, but this is actually the story of the birth of the abolitionist movement in America.

Through alternating chapters of first-person narration, Sarah and Handful speak of their lives over a thirty-five year span. At first the stilted language may be a bit off-putting, at least it was for me, but I soon worked through it as I became embroiled in the lives of these fascinating characters.

Sarah eventually moves to Philadelphia, studying to become a Quaker minister, meeting feminist and abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and honing her writing skills. Angelina follows and the two women travel throughout New England decrying slavery and drawing huge crowds with their message. Handful, through a series of brave-hearted acts of her own, meets Denmark Vesey, a real-life free black man who actually organized a slave rebellion in Charleston around 1822.

Sue Monk Kidd's first best-selling novel, "The Secret Life of Bees," displayed her interest in race and feminism early on. "The Invention of Wings" takes those themes to an entirely new level. After you read this book I know you'll want to learn more about the Grimke family, Mr. Denmark Vesey, and the historic use of quilts by African women who burned to tell their stories.

 Those of you fortunate enough to live in southwest Florida will have the opportunity to meet and talk with Ms. Kidd in March at the free Southwest Florida Reading Festival. Early-bird discounts are now available for An Evening with the Authors event where you can get up close and personal with your favorite writers. Check it out at

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