Book: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (NEW in Paperback- First published 2004)
If you are traveling to Charleston, you can visit sites mentioned in this book. In fact, one location, the Emmanuel AME church, has recently made the news in a tragic way.
Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Invention of Wings, a historical novel set in pre-Civil War Charleston South Carolina may not be what we usually talk about as summer reading. There is nothing frivolous about this book that explores the effects of slavery, the abolition movement, and the birth of women’s rights. But do not worry that it will be depressing. The characters are deeply true and fascinating, and the plot keeps you turning pages.
Since I was traveling in the South, and having read the blurbs on the book, I was eager to read it. I knew that the novel told the story of a slave girl and her mistress in a wealthy Charleston family. When I started reading, I realized it was a fascinating portrait of two women each trapped in a different way, and was reminded that Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees is a delightful companion for a reader. She weaves some delicious sentences, like “One Sunday when the air was crisp and razor-cut with light…”
I later learned that Sarah Grimké, the woman who grew up as a privileged member of society, was based on a real woman. Besides being opposed to slavery from the time she was a child and speaking publicly for the abolition, she and her sister defied convention in other ways.
Hetty “Handful”, the other main character, is an invention of the author. However, Kidd’s carefully researched story of the life of urban slaves is so impressive that you have to believe it is true, in the way that novels can frequently be more true than fact.
Handful is “given” to Sarah as a birthday present when Sarah is just 11 years old. Although Sarah fails to set Handful free as she wishes, the two become close friends. Sarah’s older brother teaches her to read and she longs to follow her father and brother’s career path by becoming a loawyer. That dream is as impossible as is the slave’s dream of living free of a master.
But there is freedom and there is freedom. The theme of the book is summed up in a line spoken by a black preacher, “Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind.”
Reconciled to not becoming a lawyer, Sarah continues to do audacious things. Since she can’t set Handful free of slavery, she sets out to free her mind by teaching her to read. You may not realize, as I did not, what a serious offense this was in the antebellum South. It is a serious infraction not just of custom, but of the law.
Handful and Sarah make a good pair. Sarah, resolving to be audacious (despite her fears and her stammer) and Handful’s rebellion (perhaps bolder, since she has less to lose). Handful’s mother tells her stories–legends brought form Africa. She sets an example of deception and refusal to allow her soul to be enslaved, and Kidd tells an interesting story about Handful’s mother, Charlotte that winds up coinciding with an event in the news this week.
The news event:
A man shot people in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. Washington Post story outlines the history of that church, including the slave revolt incited by a free black named Denmark Vesey. See historic photos of the church in this Daily Kos article.
In the novel, The Invention of Wings, Charlotte has an affair with a free black named Denmark, who preaches in a black church and Handful later becomes enmeshed in a plot for slave rebellion during which Denmark is caught and hanged.
This is just the most startling example of how contemporary this historical novel actually is. Reading today’s news jolted me as I realized that Sarah Grimké and her family and the slaves they owned lived in a Charleston where there actually was a serious threat of the mayhem of a slave revolt, abolitionists were actually shunned, people who educated blacks were punished, and women who dared to speak in public were shunned and became the target of sermons in churches.
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