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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – fascinating

September 11, 2022 9 comments

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (2014) French title: L’invention des ailes.

Different roads converging into one led me to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.

My mom had raved upon her other book, The Secret Life of Bees, which pushed me to blindly download The Invention of Wings when it was on sale on the Kindle store, not knowing what it was about but willing to try her as a writer. Then, The Invention of Wings was on display in historic houses gift shops in Savannah and Charleston and I looked it up only to find out I already had it with me, on my Kindle. I’m like the girl scout of reading, always ready!

Sue Monk Kidd is a white writer from Charleston, South Carolina. I think it’s important to know that. The Invention of Wings is based upon the life of Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873), who was the daughter of a rich planter, attorney and judge in South Carolina. Her family belonged to the local aristocracy. She moved up North, became a Quaker, an abolitionist and the mother of the women’s suffrage movement. Yes, all that in one person. According to Wikipedia, growing up, Sarah Grimké was close to her enslaved servant Hetty and Sue Monk Kidd chose to write her novel with two voices, Sarah’s and Hetty’s.

We follow the lives of these two women from 1803 to 1838. Sarah was twelve when Hetty (Handful, according to the name her mother gave her) was gifted to her as her birthday gift. The author takes us through the struggles of Sarah’s life, how she was denied higher education because she was a woman, how she loathed slavery and how she found in Quaker faith a way to abolitionist and women activism. Sarah’s life is documented and I’m not going to write her biography when there’s a full Wikipedia page about her.

Sue Monk Kidd pictures a Sarah who is obviously very intelligent and who had to break a lot of barriers to be able to reach her potential, promote her ideas and be true to herself. Her life is awe-inspiring for all the courage she had to carry on and be a pioneer in not only one but two controversial fields: abolitionism and feminism.

How she became a feminist is easy to understand. She was denied the education and profession she craved for because she was female. Just thinking of all the wasted talents and repressed lives this entailed makes my head spin. I’ll never understand how humanity thought (and still thinks) that the world is a better place when you discard the brainpower of half of the population because they are female.

I admire Sarah for leading the way to feminism but what impresses me the most is her early fight for abolitionism.

Sarah was twelve when she started rebelling against the condition of enslaved people through Bible classes. She secretly taught Hetty how to read. (In South Carolina, it was unlawful to teach an enslaved person how to read since 1740.)

And I wonder: How, at only twelve, did she get the idea that slavery was wrong? It was 1804 in Charleston, South Carolina, in a family of planters.

This system was all she knew. How intelligent, intuitive and clear-headed she must have been to be able to step aside and think out of the box! She was so young, living such a sheltered and privileged life and yet she recognized her equals in black people and did not accept her society’s rules and vision of the world. I admire people who have this built-in foresight and who are able to see and think beyond their cultural background. It’s a special brand of intelligence.

When Sarah’s life is documented, Hetty’s isn’t. Sue Monk Kidd decided to show the resistance of enslaved people through Hetty and her mother Charlotte.

There’s mental resistance, remembering Africa and keeping a free space in their mind. There are little acts of rebellion and sabotages in the house and sneaking out of the house to have some free time. There’s active rebellion through church and political movements.

When Hetty speaks, Sue Mon Kidd has the opportunity to describe her work, her fears and all the rules that are applicable to enslaved people. Badges and authorizations to go out of the house. Controls on the streets. The working house as a punishment. Their worth written down as furniture in inventory ledgers. Their fate when their master dies and wills are read. Crushed dreams and a lack of future. Living in fear because their lives were not theirs to live.

Through Hetty’s voice, we discover the quotidian of an enslaved house servant. She lived with the Grimkés all her life with her mother Charlotte. I believe that the lay out of the Grimké house is based upon the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston that I visited this summer. It was fresh in my mind when I read The Invention of Wings and I could picture Hetty and Charlotte’s whereabouts.

Rhett-Aiken House, Charleston, South Carolina.
Rhett-Aiken House. Stables and upstairs, enslaved people’s quarters.
And what I see as Charlotte and Hetty’s tree.
Rhett-Aiken House. Kitchen house and enslaved people’s quarters. Another view of the tree.

The Invention of Wings is fascinating and educational. It is useful and its success is an opportunity to broadcast anti-racist causes and feminist causes. And sadly, we still need that kind of books to make people touch these important concepts with their fingertips. Fiction has the power to strike the reader’s empathy and characters embody cold concepts. Readers can relate to Sarah and Hetty and the horror of Hetty’s life becomes real and not a disembodied history chapter in a textbook.

Sue Monk Kidd’s book is useful, informative and well-executed. But it took me a while to really dive into it and feel invested in Sarah and Hetty’s lives. I started reading it without knowing that Sarah Grimké was a real person. She even seemed unrealistic to me at the beginning! The outline of book’s purpose was obvious and well, I wasn’t fully on board until Sarah left Charleston. But that’s not a big enough flaw to deter you from reading it if you haven’t.

A good companion book to this one is The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, based upon another abolitionist’s life, John Brown. The narration more unconventional and inspired and it’s written by a black author.

The Invention of Wings is a great book, a mix between biography and fiction. I appreciated the author’s afterword where she explains where and why she took some liberties with historical facts. It’s an excellent read but since it’s a novel with a clear educational purpose, it lacks this artistic flame that comes with mind-blowing literary fiction.

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