Although Sue Monk Kidd will be a name familiar to many, it was only a few years ago that her book The Secret Life of Bees was recommended to me by a dear and special friend who always went out of his way to visit and spend a few days with us when making his 10 yearly pilgrimage to Rome. We always had wonderful discussions about books, about life, the situation in Palestine, our mutual family connections and much more. So when I saw that the author had published another novel, I wanted to read it, to remember that stories continue to be told and memories passed on, even when those who told them and recommended them are no longer with us. He would have loved this story I am sure.
The Invention of Wings is a work of historical fiction, inspired when the author came across their names at an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The discovery of two sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, abolitionists whose story was little known outside academic circles was all the more poignant for Sue Monk Kidd, when she learned they came from Charleston, South Carolina, the town she was living in at the time.
The story is a work of fiction, but the work of Sarah Grimké and her sister was real and her writing and achievements are receiving the recognition they deserve, representing as they did, an era when even a life of privilege did not give women the right to express a public opinion and especially one that challenged the status of individuals in a society.
In her novel, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story of two girls growing up in an urban slave-holding family in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah is the daughter of a wealthy, aristocratic family and Hetty, or Handful as she is referred to, is gifted to her on her 11th birthday, an event that Sarah actively attempts to reject and does so in writing. She is refused her request, just as she is also denied and mocked for her desire to pursue a professional career, her punishment to be banned from her father’s library and from reading books.
For many years she accepts her fate, although as retribution and in response to a promise made to Charlotte (Handful’s mother), she teaches Handful to read, not only a forbidden act, but against the law. Certain events eventually shake off her complacency and after one particular episode, despite the risk of rejection and ostracism by her family and community she becomes wedded to her new vocation and dares not only to voice her outrage but with the support of her sister begins to take a more active and dangerous role in standing against slavery and advocating equal rights for women.
The slave Hetty also possesses a rebellious streak, more dangerous in someone of her stature, where any small infraction can result in violent and damaging consequences, as she will discover. Denied an education, she and her mother Charlotte become talented seamstresses, Charlotte narrating her life story through the quilted squares she creates in her own time, each one representing a significant event in her life, images that speak the words she could not read or write, a reminder of who they are, where they have been, stories continually passed from mother to daughter. It was a way to subvert the system and to preserve her story.
In a sense both Sarah and Hetty are enslaved and Hetty articulates it in a scene that haunts Sarah long after.
“I’m twenty-seven-years old, Handful, and this is my life now.” She looked around the room, up at the chandelier, and back at me. “This is my life. Right here for the rest of my days.” Her voice broke as she covered her mouth with her hand.
She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not by the law. At the African church, Mr Vesey used to say, Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind.
I tried to tell her that. I said, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”
Wings are a metaphor for freedom from oppression but they also represent the ability to soar, not only to be able to choose what we want to do and how to live a life, but to do it to the best of one’s ability, to step beyond the expectations of family, community, society.
I thought this book was excellent and I like it all the more for having understood subsequently how it came about. The female characters are particularly vivid, especially Handful and her mother Charlotte and though Sarah took time to come to terms with her own vocation and to shed the trappings of her upbringing, she is an incredibly courageous character given society had rather dismissed her given her disappointment in not being able to pursue a career or attracting the right kind of husband.
When asked about writing from the perspective of an enslaved character, Sue Monk Kidd mentioned that while writing this book she read an interview with Alice Walker in which she says “She was all over my heart, so why shouldn’t she be in literature”, exactly how she felt about Handful.
I also wondered about the author’s reasons for embracing such a story, her own connections to America’s history in the South and in the links below is a Reader’s Guide in which she speaks of her own upbringing in the South in the fifties and sixties, where she was witness to many terrible racial injustices and divides, which has had the effect of drawing her towards writing about them.
“I’ve been drawn to write about racial themes because they are part of me, and also because they matter deeply to me. I can’t help but feel a social responsibility about it as a writer. Racism is the great wound and sin of the South and indeed, the great wound and original sin of America. Two hundred and forty-six years of slavery was an American holocaust, and its legacy is racism. I don’t think we’ve fully healed the wound or eradicated the sin. For all the great strides we’ve made, that legacy still lingers.” Sue Monk Kidd
A Readers Guide – Q & A with Sue Monk Kidd
Interview with Oprah – Sue Monk Kidd chats with Oprah and takes Reader’s Questions
Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Group.