Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book review: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The books I have reviewed so far center around the Medieval period or are explicitly related to plants or herbalism, so today’s review may come as a surprise. However, I am also very interested in United States history, especially the time from colonization through the Civil War. When researching eighteenth and nineteenth century wills, I have come across many examples of enslaved persons being bequeathed, to recipients including children. I have often wondered how it would affect a child to be presented with a human being and told that this person was now his or her property. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd explores the story of one such owner and slave pair. The novel is a fictionalized account of the Grimké sisters of South Carolina and the persons enslaved by their family in the early part of the nineteenth century, from the points of view of Sarah Grimké and her slave Handful.

Abolitionist and feminist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké were born to a slave-holding family, but from an early age it was clear that they did not agree with the idea of owning people as if they were objects. Many of the day-to-day details of their lives presented in the novel are products of the author’s imagination, but the basic outline captures the true biographies of Sarah and Angelina. The stories of the enslaved persons are almost entirely fictionalized, as few details are known of the lives of the Grimké slaves. However, the stories of Handful and her fellow slaves easily could be true. They are based upon accounts of events that actually did take place and are consistent with narratives related by other former slaves.

Sarah and Handful narrate alternate chapters of the novel. Both characters are well-drawn as they come to life on the pages of the book. We sympathize with Sarah as she experiences one disappointment after another. With a lavender bow tied around her neck, Handful was given to Sarah for Sarah’s 11th birthday. Sarah attempted to free Handful, but her efforts were rebuffed. It was illegal to teach slaves to read in South Carolina at the time, but Sarah nonetheless shared her love of reading with Handful. When they were discovered, both girls were punished severely. Handful was whipped, and Sarah was banished from her father’s library and forbidden to read anything except selected religious books and additional texts approved by the Grimké girls’ schoolteacher, who was not known for fostering intellectual development. This event shattered Sarah’s dreams and aspirations, and she only recovered her spirit much later in life as she began to speak and write about women’s rights and the evils of slavery. It took a long time for Kidd’s Sarah to wake up and start taking action. I wanted to scream at her for not freeing Handful once Sarah became an adult and could have taken steps to free at least this one person. Instead, the fictional Sarah transferred Handful back to the ownership of other family members. However, Sarah had to travel her path at her own pace, and part of her journey was that it took time for her to develop to the point where she could play an active role in the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.

We know very little about the real Hetty (Handful in the novel), other than the fact that she really was presented to the young Sarah as a gift, that Sarah did teach her how to read in defiance of the state laws and the household rules, and that the girls were in fact severely punished for this act. Nothing else is known about the actual Hetty, who died a few years after the reading episode. Sue Monk Kidd honors the memory of Hetty with an account of what she might have been like if she had lived beyond childhood. Of the two protagonists, the almost entirely fictional Handful is actually a more engaging character, in comparison to the at times drone-like version of Sarah depicted in the book. Despite her enslavement and despite the many hardships inherent to the life of an enslaved person in the South, Handful had a vitality that could not be suppressed. Handful explained it well at one point when she suggested that Sarah was enslaved in mind but not body, while the reverse was true for Handful. It would take more time for Sarah to find her voice, both literally and figuratively, but Handful had already found a way of expressing herself through her sewing art and through her small acts of rebellion. Handful draws much inspiration from her mother Charlotte, who teaches her never to forget her dreams.

As it turns out, there is a touch of herbalism contained within the novel. When Sarah must spend seven weeks away from Charleston at the family plantation, she takes on the task of establishing an infirmary and tending to the medical needs of the plantation slaves. When Sarah falls into a depression after returning home following the death of her father, she is given tea with St. John’s Wort. These kinds of details about medical practices and other aspects of life help create a believable setting for the novel. Though most of us today would not want to live in the early nineteenth-century South, Kidd does a wonderful job of recreating that world and populating it with characters that matter to the reader.

The Invention of Wings is a novel that will keep you turning the pages. After you finish it, you will want to move on to one of the biographies or other suggested readings to learn more about the Grimké sisters, story quilts, and other subjects depicted in the story. At the very least, you will find yourself searching online for more information about Sarah and Angelina Grimké. I recommend the book highly to any reader.

Bible Quilt, by Harriet Powers. Made 1885-1886. An example of a story quilt. Photograph from the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Treasures of American History online exhibition, Accessed 4 February 2014.

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