Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
"The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd; Viking Books; January 2014; 373 pp
Author Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, "The Secret Life of Bees," published in 2002, was a phenomenal bestseller, with strong, wise, sometimes eccentric female characters. Kidd's new novel "The Invention of Wings" also has women as its main characters; the book is partially based on the real lives of two abolitionists and women's right activists who lived in 19thcentury Charleston, South Carolina.
In 2007, while traveling to New York, Kidd stumbled upon the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were included in a museum exhibit's list of names of 999 women who have made important contributions to history. She had never heard of the Grimkes, even though they were from Charleston, which is where Kidd was residing. When she returned home, Kidd did some research and was inspired to build her next novel around the sisters' lives.
"The Invention of Wings" is told in the first person, with the alternate voices of Sarah Grimke and the fictitious character Hetty, also known as "Handful," who is a slave in the Grimke household. The novel begins in 1803 with Sarah Grimke's eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. Sarah is troubled with the thought that she owns Handful and promises Handful's mother that she will free her as soon as she can. Sarah secretly teaches Handful to read and write and the two girls become friends.
Sarah, intelligent and willful, has aspirations to be a lawyer someday, to follow the footsteps of her father, who is a judge. Her parents mock this "outlandish" idea; her mother tells her "every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good. You are unusual only in your determination to fight what is inevitable...you must give yourself over to your duty and your fate and make whatever happiness you can."
Handful, a spirited girl, is empowered by her ability to read and write and by her shrewd mother, Charlotte, who manages to show her little ways to handle the struggles of being a slave while hanging on to some strand of dignity. As Handful is growing up, Charlotte creates a story quilt to pass her life story on to her daughter. Handful, like her mother, grows up with an independent temperament even as she lives as a slave and seamstress for the Grimke household.
"The Invention of Wings" follows the lives of Sarah and Handful for the next thirty-five years. Sarah leaves her family home and joins her youngest sister Angelina to fight against slavery and for women's rights. Handful, who learned to sew from her mother, becomes an accomplished seamstress, but remains a slave for the Grimke family for most of that time period.
Kidd does a masterful job of portraying the two women and their contrasting, but in some ways, similar lives. Both women experience oppression, although in very different ways. And both women manage to overcome injustices in their lives. The book weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly, making it an appealing and interesting read.
It took Kidd four years to research and then write this engaging novel. At the end of the book is a nine-page "author's note" which includes some interesting facts about Sarah and Angelina Grimke. Kidd explains which parts of her book are based on real events and which parts are fabricated. She gives more information on the Grimke women, story quilts and some suggestions for further reading.