I’ll confess: I didn’t want to read Sue Monk Kidd’s latest, The Invention of Wings. It was a book club pick and I put off reading it as long as possible until our meeting this week forced me to crack it open (the long library hold list helped me on this…guess I should have trusted its popularity). I don’t know exactly why I was dreading it, but let’s just call it the reverse Oprah-effect. I wasn’t feeling historical fiction and I think I went into it thinking it was going to be cheesy for no real reason at all. Good news: I was super wrong.
The Invention of Wings is the true story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a layer and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina, and one of her family’s slaves, Handful. Growing up, Sarah was known for her intelligence, not her beauty, and was indulged by books and extra lessons from her father. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given Handful as her present, which is deeply unsettling to her. She tries to set her free to the dismay of her overbearing and unloving mother. When she fails, Sarah decides she’s going to be the first female lawyer in Charleston so she never has to feel that helpless again. As you can guess, it doesn’t go over well, she is publicly humiliated by her family, and develops a speech impediment as a result. Sheesh! Sarah listlessly floats through the next few years until she moves north. Her move away from her family, thankfully, is the catalyst for her personal growth. She becomes a Quaker, and ultimately finds her voice as an abolitionist writer and speaker and a champion of women’s rights along with her younger sister Nina. For her part, Handful lives up to her name and leads a life of quiet subversion. Handful, in real life, was a Grimke slave, but died very young. In Kidd’s imagination however, she follows in her mother’s footsteps, becoming the Grimke’s seamstress and doing her part in the building slaves’ riots and working everyday to escape. Kidd weaves in Handful’s family history throughout the novel as Handful and her mother sew it into their quilts. It is heartbreaking and I’m sure all too real.
In the end, I really enjoyed this book. It is powerful and beautifully written and an important story to be told. I loved how the narrative jumps between Sarah and Handful and I really loved the character growth. But I didn’t love the book. I had a very hard time getting into the story and there are SO MANY TIMES I wanted to shake Sarah. I’m sorry to be so awful to a woman who did so much work to end slavery and advance women’s rights in a time when doing so was dangerous and nearly impossible, but Sarah is the Edith of the Grimke family, just in Charleston instead of Downton and in way worse clothing. I kind of said “Poor Sarah/Edith” for awhile and got so sad that her family is so callous and everything seems to go wrong at the worst times and no man will ever love her…but then I just stopped caring. It’s not until Nina joins the crusade, and they find their wings together, that I was swept up in the plot and really felt that Sarah’s part of the story blossomed. On the other hand, I was caught up in Handful’s story from the beginning and never found it to be cheesy or maudlin. It was gritty and hard to read and yet still hopeful, and I am glad I learned just a little bit more about the worst part of American history from Handful’s perspective.
I’ll be honest, this is not a light, fluffy beach read. It’s perfect for the last dreary days of February when you want to sink your teeth into something that will make you a better person for having read it. I can’t wait to discuss the book later this week with my book club; I have the feeling that everyone in our diverse group will have taken away something special from this special book. You know, special for an Oprah book…
Rating: 8, Excellent (Memorable and above par, highly entertaining.)