Review of The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
The Invention of Wings is historical fiction that tracks the characters of (the real-life) Sarah Grimke and her enslaved maid Handful through decades of cruelties, resolve, heartbreak, and discovery in early nineteenth century Charleston.
In 1803 Charleston, plantation owners wield cruel and immense control over their many enslaved people. In The Invention of Wings, young Hetty, whose real name is Handful, is given to eleven-year-old Sarah Grimke as a gift for her birthday, and the two girls' lives become unevenly, twistingly intertwined forevermore.
Sue Monk Kidd spins this historical fiction story, inspired by the real-life Sarah Grimke, and includes excruciating details of the time, including various horrifying punishments for enslaved people considered disobedient; the oppressive power exercised over the humans considered by many in the region to be white property; and the incredible, brave spark that leads some of those in even the most dire situations to keep hope and to resist.
It feels appropriate to have complicated feelings about this book. It's uncomfortable, disturbing, and infuriating to read historical fiction about the actual horrors that occurred in this place and time: enslaving people, dehumanizing the Black race, and the exercising of frequent, obscene abuse. The secondary subjugation explored in the book is that of women by men, and various instances and examples of women's powerlessness are apparent throughout the story.
The Invention of Wings tracks the character of Handful through decades of bided time, resistance, tragedy, abuse, resolve, and heartbreak, and Kidd grounds Handful in her mother's stories and in her history, which she pieces together similarly to the way she creates her quilts, stitch by stitch.
Handful and her mother are gifted seamstresses, somewhat more valuable than others on the plantation because they contribute to the outward, fancy, socially acceptable appearance of the Grimke family by creating beautiful gowns and clothing. In a heart-wrenching scene, Handful sees a list of family property that details her own asserted worth. The dollar amount by her name is relatively high, and she finds herself proud to see it, even as she recognizes the horrifying nature of the entire system, in which humans could possibly be thought to be worth dollar amounts.
The Invention of Wings also follows a version of events in which the real-life figure of Sarah Grimke makes a slow, twisting shift from her role as a young woman holding papers asserting ownership of another person (and living within a plantation and Charleston society that were powered by the unwilling work of enslaved people) into an early, outspoken abolitionist. Sarah's stammer feels like a symbol of her longtime ineptitude and inability to achieve any change in her own household for herself or others. When her father dies, she cobbles together a clumsy version of freedom for herself. Later, when she must overcome her fears of public speaking, it feels fitting that she does so in order to excoriate those enslaving others and to encourage the freeing of enslaved persons.
I finally read (listened to) this book after my friends Sara, Kiki, and Stirling repeatedly recommended it, and the title also came up in a recent discussion with my friend James when he kindly had me as a guest on his Maybe I'm Amazed podcast.
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Sue Monk Kidd has also written other books, like The Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, and The Book of Longings, which made it onto two Greedy Reading Lists: Six Historical Fiction Books I Loved This Year and My Twelve Favorite 2020 Books.