Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I decided to read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd after it popped up on Goodreads as a "mover & shaker." I of course had heard of The Secret Life of Bees, and The Mermaid Chair, but this book would end up being my first by Kidd, although probably not my last.

The Situation: At eleven years old, Sarah Grimke would be given her very own slave. It is 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah lives with her plantation owning family and their many slaves. The one assigned to her is named Hetty, but prefers to be called Handful, the name her mother Charlotte gave her at birth. Up until the day she was given to Sarah, Handful had always slept by her mother's side, but now she sleeps outside of Sarah's bedroom door, in the cold of the hallway, should Sarah need anything in the middle of the night. Even at only eleven years old, Sarah abhors the "peculiar institution" and sets her mind to setting Handful free. But after a failed attempt to do so, Sarah believes that perhaps becoming a lawyer, something that women back then just did not do, will be her way to be able to change the laws and be rid of slavery altogether. Meanwhile, Handful and her mother commit their own small acts of rebellion, attempting to be free in any way they can, if not physically.

The Problem: Sarah's ideas about abolition and equality are not welcome in the slave-holding south, not even inside of her own house. Her difficult and ill-tempered mother is not above inflicting cruel punishments on the slaves that make mistakes or misbehave. While her father isn't quite as harsh, he is less than supportive of Sarah's ambitions to become a lawyer, and does not welcome her "radical" ideas concerning freedom for what he believes to be his property. Meanwhile, as Sarah struggles between her privileged but constrained life and fighting for what she knows to be right, Handful is simply fighting to survive and not let the Grimke's enslave her mind as well as her body. Charlotte had made Sarah promise that she would do what she could to set Handful free, but while waiting on the promise to be fulfilled, she sneaks away from the Grimke property with fake passes that allow her to walk the streets of Charleston and earn money that she intends to save up in order to purchase freedom for both her daughter and herself. Handful fears her mother will one day be caught and all hope will be lost, and Sarah fears her being a woman will give her no opportunity to fulfill her promise. Over the next thirty-five years, both women will fight for similar things using what little they have available to them.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the early 19th century and extends into the beginnings of the Abolitionist Movement as well as the Women's Rights Movement. Sarah and her sister Angelina, or Nina, were real sisters who became involved in both movements, despite having grown up in a slave-holding family in Charleston. While Sarah would be known mostly for her writing, Nina was known as a great orator, and both were incredibly passionate not only about freedom for slaves, but also equality with their white counterparts. They came under heavy fire not only because of their radical views, but because they were women, something that caused much friction between those that wanted to focus only on abolishing slavery, and those that were also concerned with the rights of women. Many of the events Kidd has put into the novel are fictionalized, but there are also a great deal of them that are true, if maybe placed a few years ahead or behind when they actually happened. Sarah was even given a slave named Hetty, but little is known about her, so the half of the story that came from her is completely of Kidd's own invention. In the novel, while Sarah was a free white woman, she felt trapped because of the roles she was confined to despite her intelligence and her ambition. And because Handful was a black slave, she was physically trapped, but determined to never let them have her mind, mostly due to her mother's influence who was bent on the same. Freedom is of course a big theme, but so is greed, as this seems to be the main thing that keeps some people who believe slavery to be awful from actually freeing their slaves. Insecurity and fear also play a role in people's hesitance to push for both abolition and equality, and they seem to play a part in the public's resistance to the two outspoken Grimke sisters.

My Verdict: While I certainly see that value of this book and can see that Kidd did her research into the lives of both Sarah and Angelina Grimke, I wish that parts of it were written better. I think I was much more drawn to Handful's story than I was Sarah's. At first, I was interested in both stories equally as they are both children, one meant to be served by the other, but instead there was a strange friendship that had formed, because that is just how children are. But as the girls get older, and when Sarah eventually leaves Charleston, I am no longer as interested in her story as I am Handful's. Maybe it was because, at the end of the day, Sarah was a free white women while Handful was a black slave, and probably always would be. Both stories had moments of intensity and their fair share of trials, but Handful's story just seemed more compelling. Perhaps it was because there is more written about Sarah Grimke, and therefore more actual accounts that this fictionalized version was attempting to adhere to. Meanwhile, Handful's story is pretty much completely made up. I'm not sure what it is. But overall, it isn't a bad book, just not as interesting as I had hoped. 

Favorite Moment: When Sarah ignores her mother heads outside to help a wounded slave.

Favorite Character: While I would probably be annoyed with her if she were my sister in real life, I liked Nina, Sarah's younger and much braver sister. She grows up to believe much the same thing as Sarah does, but she doesn't hesitate to say what is on her mind and jumps right into the movement despite the consequences and doesn't understand why others wouldn't do the same.

Recommended Reading: Slavery is always a hard subject to read about, fictionalized or not. So because the book I just reviewed falls under fiction, I will recommend the nonfiction Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. But be warned, it is incredibly difficult to read.      

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