The idea of ‘wings’ as explained in the story, came from black folklore – that people in Africa could fly, but when they were captured as slaves, they lost their wings.
Hello again, everyone! Today, I’m reviewing a book that I have recommended before – ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd. I have reviewed another one of this author’s books, The Secret Life of Bees, previously.
Now onto the story. The synopsis reads: “Hetty ‘Handful’ Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.”
The book is historical, and symbolic – the title itself holds a powerful meaning. The idea of ‘wings’ as explained in the story, came from black folklore – that people in Africa could fly, but when they were captured as slaves, they lost their wings. Handful’s mother, her ‘Mauma’, tells her that her shoulder-blades are where her wings were supposed to be.
The wings symbolise freedom – which Handful and her mother Charlotte strive to achieve through abolition – and their freedom is physical. Even Sarah Grimke and Nina try to achieve their own personal freedom, through fighting for women’s rights and breaking backward thought.
I hadn’t realised how little I knew about slavery and oppression until I read this book. We only know what we read in history textbooks growing up, we only read what people are willing to admit. This book made me see past that to realities I hadn’t known. In fact, in the author’s note at the end of the book, Kidd mentions a quote that she was inspired by:
“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make pain in the heart our own.”
As you read the story, one can clearly see the impact that this quote, by Julius Lester, has on the author. The book serves as more than a ‘thinly fictionalized account of Sarah Grimke’s history, but a thickly imagined story inspired by her life’. Exploring Sarah Grimke’s history also gave Kidd a chance to delve into more personal accounts of life in the past, and some characters are real people who lived in Charleston, South Carolina – where the story is set – during the thirty years that the story spans (1803 -1805 to 1833 -1835).
Some parts were a little difficult to read – no one has the power to go back and change history, to change a cruel, brutal moment of it.
The book is divided into six parts, with Handful and Sarah’s narration alternating, to give us two widely different but equally valid perspectives, both with distinct voices. I personally enjoyed reading about Handful, more than Sarah, because I was curious to know more about the life of those oppressed. Additionally, towards the three-fifths mark of the book – a weird fraction, I know – Sarah Grimke’s story becomes a little heavier. It delves deeper into religion and Quakerism, which at the time of reading, I wasn’t particularly interested in.
Yet, my favourite character is Charlotte – headstrong, kind, and fiery at times. She holds stories from black folklore close to her heart, and stays true to her roots despite her treatment as the Grimke household’s seamstress. Her story quilts were a concept that I will never forget – a patchwork quilt, with each square decorated with an applique, symbolising a memory or specific event.
She knows what she wants – her freedom. Over the course of the book, she comes up with several ways to ensure her’s and Handful’s independence – including finding out their value in a book of all the household belongings. It was Handful, who read this book, and found out – not just her worth, but what she meant to the Grimke household.
Something that stood out to me was the fact that Sarah taught Handful how to read, gave her a great power – the power of literacy, without thinking twice. It was the law, that if slaves were given the power to read, to collect knowledge, there would be an uprising.
Some parts were a little difficult to read – no one has the power to go back and change history, to change a cruel, brutal moment of it. But in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.
If you’d like to read something more modern, but with similar themes, then definitely check out ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd, and take a look at my review as well! That’s it for this week. See you next time!
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