Monday, December 1, 2014

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings is the story of two women whose lives first became entwined when Sarah Grimke's mother "gifted" her with Hetty ("Handful") on Sarah's 12th birthday. Already able to see that slavery was wrong, Sarah, whose family was among the wealthy Charleston elite, attempted to emancipate  Hetty but was thwarted by her parents. She then decided to teach Hetty to read; those efforts, too, were cut short when another slave ratted on Hetty. Over the next 35 years, the two remained in a close relationship that resembled friendship and yet was tainted by their differing statuses.

Sarah, whose story Kidd has kept very close to the historical record of this abolitionist and women's rights activist, was not conventionally beautiful and suffered from a speech impediment. After nearly being conned into marriage by a golddigger, Sarah went North, where she found herself attracted to the Quaker faith. Although the Quakers had many forward-thinking ideas, they still believed women should spend their lives supporting the efforts of men, rather than being leaders themselves. When the Quaker widower Sarah loved proposed, she was unwilling to give up her dreams of becoming a Quaker minister in order to marry. Although she did not achieve that goal, she and her sister Angelina did travel the states to speak about slavery and women's rights, a highly unusual circumstance in the early 19th century.

Meanwhile, Hetty remained in the Grimke household in Charleston. Her mother was a gifted seamstress and taught Hetty the skills she would need to take over that job. Her mother also had a penchant for escaping from the house to rendevous with a lover, a free black man named Denmark Vesey. When Hetty's mother disappeared one day, Hetty investigated what happened and became involved first in Vesey's church and then, marginally, in his efforts to launch a slave rebellion in Charleston. But her involvement in these efforts was not without cost. She continues to dream of escaping from slavery, a dream her mother imbued in her when she was a very small child.

At the end of the story, Sarah and Hetty reunite for one last effort at freedom.

Kidd has said that writing Hetty, who is a fictional character, was much easier than writing Sarah because of the need to stick at least somewhat close to the historical record. I think I could occasionally sense that as a reader because the Sarah sections sometimes felt like Kidd was trying to convey a lot of facts, but there were also plenty of facts in Hetty's section--if not about her, then about Denmark Vesey, slave rebellions, and the treatment of slaves. In fact, I found The Invention of Wings very informative, both about the Grimke sisters, whom I had heard of but didn't have detailed knowledge of, and about urban slavery. I found the book less effective/engaging as a novel perhaps because the themes--slavery was a wretched institution, women of the era had to work extraordinarily hard and with great courage to "invent their wings"--really go without saying.

Two side notes. First, the digital version of the book includes Oprah Winfrey's notes, which were interesting as a window into Oprah but not that interesting in terms of explicating the book. Second, I was very grateful that Kidd used dialect sparingly and did not use it in representing Hetty's speech or thinking.

Favorite passages:
There's no pain on earth that doesn't crave a benevolent witness.

I never had heard this story. Listening to it was like watching myself sleep, clouds floating, mauma bent over me.

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 another's pain in the heart our own.

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