Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Invention of Wings


 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.
(From Goodreads)


 What does it mean to be free? Does it take the literal form as being physically free from bondage? Or, perhaps freedom can also be used to describe an independent state of mind? In Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, both scenarios are true. Set in the slave-driven south, Kidd’s fictional interpretation of the lives of famed abolitionists and female rights activists Sarah and Angelina Grimke delve into the idea of freedom as a concept both mental and physical, showing each from the unique perspective of both hesitant master and slave.

 The opening scenes of the book truly set the stage for what will develop into a complicated and, at the time, socially unacceptable relationship between Sarah Grimke and her 11th birthday present, a young slave named Hetty “Handful” Grimke. Sarah, even at the young age of 11, knows that slavery is wrong, and tries to reject her “gift”, much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother. This disdain for the peculiar institution of slavery never leaves Sarah, even after forcibly accepting Handful as her slave. If anything, it propels her to follow a path that she feels is righteous and true.  Sarah has dreams and aspirations of pursuing a career in law, just like her father and brother, hoping to be able to one day make a real difference in the world. She feverishly studies her father’s law books, and even garners her father’s praise as having a gift for the vocation.  A turning point for both girls is the discovery that Sarah has taught Handful to read. This is viewed as criminal in the racially divided South, leaving Handful with physical scars from a severe beating, and Sarah with the mental scars of being severed from her father and his beloved books.  

 After having her dream of attaining a law degree is dashed, Sarah leaves the South and Handful behind to pursue an abolitionist’s cause. Once in the North, however, Sarah finds that her freedom from the South is merely just a physical removal, encountering her own form of discrimination because she is a woman who holds strong opinions. Her struggle for women’s rights brings her great notoriety, as well as influential enemies bent on suppressing her voice. This begs the question: Is she TRULY free?

 Handful, in contrast, spends her days perfecting her seamstress craft. Eventually, she becomes well known for her talent with a needle and thread, and finds herself in high demand, not only on the Grimke plantation, but all over Charleston, South Carolina. Handful hopes this new found demand is her ticket to freedom. She creates a mental sense of independence that gives her the courage to believe that one day she could be free. Her true freedom comes by way of a family quilt started by her mother that depicts the lineage of her family. Her need to finish this quilt allows her a spiritual freedom that transcends the physical bondage of slavery, even though she remains on the Grimke plantation where even Sarah is unable to set her free. It becomes clear that her mental freedom is far more liberating than Sarah’s bodily freedom in the North.

 After reading this novel, I was left with a real admiration for Kidd’s attention to detail and adherence to historical reality . . . as much as that is possible in a piece of fiction. As I read the story, I found that I could hear the characters speaking to me right from the page. The dialogue is written in such a way, that you feel as though you are there, hearing every twang and colloquial term that you might expect from the time period.  The complex task of unveiling the antebellum South through the eyes of both master and slave is done with great mastery, while still making this a story of triumph over great adversity that transcends the centuries.

Admittedly, I have not read any other pieces by Sue Monk Kidd, so I really have no basis to compare this with her other novels, but as a stand-alone The Invention of Wings has all of those smart touches that makes the reader want to devour more of her work. She runs the gamut of emotion from witty humor to unabashed disgust over the treatment of Hetty and her fellow plantation workers. Readers will laugh, cry and cheer out loud! If you are expecting the run of the mill antebellum novel, you will be more than pleasantly surprised at the depth of the characters, as well as the brazen and bold face put to the early abolition and women’s right movements. Without reservation or hesitation,  I give this book 5 stars. 

1 comment: