Charli Mills's Reviews > The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
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it was amazing

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is historical fiction based on the biographical lives of two sisters, Sarah, and Angelina Grimke, who were the first female abolitionist agents in America. What makes their story remarkable is that the sisters were daughters of a prominent slave-holding family. They refused to normalize the South’s “peculiar institution,” and yet their transformation slowly evolves with considerable risk. The book is set mostly in Charleston, South Carolina and spans from 1803 to 1838, decades before the Civil War, and beginning one hundred years before women got the right to vote.

To tell the story, Kidd uses two separate character points of view, including Sarah Grimke, and her family’s slave, Hetty Handful Grimke. Handful frames the story, opening with her narration as an eleven-year-old yard slave who calls her mother mauma. She begins with:

“There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, ‘Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.’ My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.” (Kidd 9.)

Throughout the story, the author alternates between Handful and Sarah to carry forward each era to show the enslavement of laborers treated as sub-human, of women to societal expectations, of men to their reputations, of children to their parents’ expectations, and of parishioners to religious doctrines. Captivity is a constant theme, yet Kidd lets it waft through the story like the smell of baking bread – the reader recognizes and feels a reaction to it. However, this is a biography, and the narrators tell us what we need to know of their lives and revelations.

Readers can come to The Invention of Wings ignorant of its place in the history of women’s suffrage. It is not important to know that Sarah and her sister were real. It matters that the sisters fought for the voices of women as much as they did for the abolition of slavery. It is a circular construction by the author. The biographical characters conclude that in order to abolish slavery, women must find freedom; similarly, in order for the story of women freedom fighters to be recounted, the slave narrative must be told.

Through Handful, Kidd deftly shows the suffering of a captive labor force. She leaves no aspect unexplored. She shows what it is to defy slavery and what it is to succumb to it from both sides of the whip. Kidd shows us how entangled slaves and women are. Through Handful’s eleven-year-old eyes, she remarks about Sarah’s father when there is an issue in the yard regarding the slaves:

“Master Grimké groaned like he’d stepped in a dog pile, all this nasty business with women and slaves. He took his light and went back to bed.” (Kidd 41.)

As a reader, I was drawn into the author’s imagined world of early antebellum Charleston. Kidd wrote gripping scenes that left me wanting to know what happened next, only to wish it were not the consequences I feared for the characters. I felt empathy for both Handful and Sarah, as well as Angelina and Handful’s mauma. Each time they took a risk, they paid the price. The institutions that enslaved them employed all the members of society both foe and friend to keep the bars in place. The book is a marvel of perseverance and not by extraordinary heroes, but people we can relate to if we, the readers, were in their bonds. The dual narration adds to the full experience of their lives and time. Kidd connects their era to ours -- the heritage of American women.

As someone who writes historical fiction, I admired Kidd’s smooth handling of details. She tells enough to build a realistic early nineteenth-century world. It is the emotion that Kidd creates, which makes this book exceed the depth of many other historical novels. It is not a sweeping epic, nor a romanticized view of early America. Instead, it is realistic and relevant, a look at history to understand the divides still present today in American society.

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Reading Progress

August 29, 2019 – Started Reading
August 29, 2019 – Shelved
September 29, 2019 – Finished Reading

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