The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel, THE INVENTION OF WINGS, is a work of historical fiction so facile in its writing that you might underestimate the intensity of the plot line as you become engrossed in the tale of two young girls on opposite sides of slavery in early 19th-century Charleston.
Using the jumping-off point of the story of abolitionist and early American feminist Sarah Grimke as a young girl, Kidd manages to bring home the realities of slavery as seen through the eyes of children: Sarah, the privileged daughter of a plantation owner, and Hetty “Handful” Grimke, the slave girl who is “given” to Sarah as a present when she turns 13. Sarah’s feeling of revulsion towards the idea of slavery is clear. Her attempts to help Handful have a real life, not just a slave life, is the foundation for THE INVENTION OF WINGS.
"THE INVENTION OF WINGS is too good to put down until you have traveled the entire 35 years with these remarkable young women."
Sarah and her sister, Angelina, were among the first female abolionists in the country, and their lives as reformers inspired Kidd to consider what it would have been like for a young girl with decidedly un-Dixie-like pretensions to personal freedom to grow up in a place where the thing she found most distasteful was being shoved in her face on a moment-by-moment basis. Kidd gives Sarah an age-appropriate charm and the ability to see only what is going on in front of her as she deals with trying to make Handful a part of the world the white family inhabits. Handful’s mother, Charlotte, is a brave and talented slave seamstress who has plans for sending her daughter free into the world-at-large.
The quilt that Charlotte creates throughout the story tells the tale of her life. Kidd was inspired on the crafty end by Harriet Powers, a woman born into slavery in 1837 in Georgia, whose work is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. As she builds her quilt, the world tumbles toward a more equitable and decent place, if only because of the wishes and work of young girls who dare to see the world another way. As Handful remarks, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.”
The stories that are compiled in THE INVENTION OF WINGS pay tribute to flights of freedom earned and appreciated; flights from slavery and from the oppression of gender; a girl’s independence from her mother’s worldview; and 35 years of growth, love, pain and courage. They are reflected in every character’s struggles and in the early 19th century, as the country prepares to make its most precipitous leap into true democracy.
The girls are exceptional characters. The world in which they live and the way it changes are so exceedingly visceral that you become entranced and barely notice the passing of time as you are reading. Be sure you don’t pick up the book in the midst of a busy week. Save it for some frigid day when you can curl up in a corner and never stop reading until the end. THE INVENTION OF WINGS is too good to put down until you have traveled the entire 35 years with these remarkable young women.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 8, 2014