The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

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.

Invention of WingsThe 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.

WingsThe 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.

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)

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

Additional Links

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.

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22 thoughts on “The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

  1. I read this book, too. Although I don’t agree that it is excellent, your review is the best I’ve read. And I’ve read and been critical of many, many reviews of this book. All the other reviews I’ve read say that Sarah and Hetty (Handful) were real and barely mention the other sister. Your review is the only accurate one I’ve read.

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    • Thank you for your comment, I really enjoyed the book and it was enhanced by understanding a little of the history, being a popular choice I didn’t read any reviews before writing my thoughts, although I did listen to the author speak about her inspiration, because I was intrigued to know why and how a white, southern woman could inhabit the voice of an enslaved character. Certainly there is more boldness in her depiction of Hetty and Charlotte than there is in Sarah and Nina and it appears she was more sure of Hetty’s voice.

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  2. You know me..always curious about the title of the book Can you add tell me anything about It? Is it a quote out of a text the characters were reading…?

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    • Sue Monk Kidd always creates a title before she writes the book, so the title existed before, wings clearly symbolise flight and freedom, which is important to both the main female characters.

      The author also subsequently came across an American black folktale about people in Africa being able to fly and then losing their wings when captured into slavery however in terms of the book it also represents the social movements that were taking hold at the time, not just abolition of slavery but women’s rights.

      I like the symbolism but I’m not sure about the “invention” it’s a rediscovery or spreading of something that has always been there. It’s not an easily memorable title to recall.

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  3. Interesting, Oprah Winfrey has a show in North America called Super Soul Sunday. It’s on at 11 in the morning and I really try to watch it. It’s a very good show. Just recently Sue Monk Kidd was on and I made a mental note to buy this book. Thanks for the reminder. Gotta do it now 🙂

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    • That’s interesting as it was one of the questions the author was asked by a reader, whether she identifies as a Southern writer, but she doesn’t accept the label and I think from the two books I have read her work is more universal than something relating to only one particular geographic location.

      I hope you try it out and read it, the historical figures she bases it on are interesting to learn about and the story itself engaging.

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  4. I too found the historical basis for this novel interesting, but I found her decision to resurrect Handful and have their relationship be a powerful force in Sarah’s life a little strange. I understand that this is a work of fiction, but it really took something away from the novel for me.

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    • I guess that depends on whether we understand the historical facts before or after reading the novel and for me, I didn’t read about the facts until after I had read the story, so it was easy for me to accept the character of Handful, who I thought Sue Monk Kidd inhabited admirably. However, I completely get that knowing what happened to her in reality before reading the story might create a different impression and it would be an interesting question to ask the author.

      From the interview, I understand she asked herself, What if…? So it becomes historical fiction, she imagines a life that might have been and in her imagination the character clearly had more from life she wanted to do. I understand how that can happen for a writer and then as readers, we either go with it or if we are too close to the facts, we receive it with certain reservations. Now I am wondering how I might have reacted if I knew what had happened to the real life character of Handful too.

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  5. Thank you, I have been looking for a third story in which quilts play a part to make up a possible trio for our summer school and this would certainly fit the bill because it would clearly also give us a great deal to discuss.

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    • This would be a fantastic addition and the fact that the author saw the work of Harriet Powers and incorporated that into her work, I find amazing.

      I actually passed this book on to a very good friend to read before me without realising there was a connection with quilts, a subject she wrote her master’s thesis on and so that whole “quilt thread” was especially poignant for both of us – storytelling through needle craft is a wonderful subject!

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  6. Beautiful review, Claire! I remember one of my friends reading ‘The Secret Lives of Bees’. ‘The Invention of Wings’ seems to be a fascinating book, especially because of its historical characters. It is also wonderful that the story is told through the voice of Handful. I loved this sentence from the passage you have quoted – “She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not by the law” – so powerful and thought-provoking. Isn’t it true that though sometimes the law does its part, most times we are trapped by our own minds and by those of the people around us who influence our lives?

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    • It is an amazing quote Vishy and one the author discusses in her interview, for all their wealth and position in society, many people who are in these situations just want to be free and equal and able to speak their minds, and back in the 1800’s the women certainly were’t free to pursue a career or speak their mind so freely, but even the men who spoke out against slavery for example would likely have found themselves ostracized. Maybe things have changed, but in many ways they haven’t, there are many taboos still to be broken.

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  7. Added this to the tower, Claire. I did enjoy “Bees” and will watch the video you have added here. The culture of that entire area, past and present, is unique and intriguing.

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  8. After reading your review I purchased a copy to read and loved it. I am particularly taken with Kidd’s ability to make manifest her female protagonist’s deepest yearnings for inner freedom aligning them with ongoing spiritual development, so that in the end one requires the other, though in the widest spiritual context..

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    • I am so glad you enjoyed it Edith, it’s doing the rounds of my close friends and we have all really loved it too.

      You are right, she really gets inside that desire for freedom, whether it is physical or mental, which is ultimately a desire to be who we are meant to be, to practice our life’s work. This was denied to all slaves, to many women and to many of the lower classes and the poor. It is a struggle that continues just as much today as ever and it is books like this that perhaps more than just entertain and inform, continue to inspire individuals to make changes.

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      • I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head Claire. So often books are referred to as ‘inspirational’ but this one truly is in the sense that it has the potential to be transformative. I shall be giving this book to my daughters to read! 🙂

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