Taking Flight: A [Brief] Book Review

I finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings a few days ago, but have been pondering the origin of this novel’s concept for a little while to settle everything going on in my mind regarding it. Famous for her previous literary work, The Secret Life of Bees, which takes place in the segregated south of US history’s oppressive past, Invention takes place in the antebellum south—a period in history pertaining to slavery and the discrimination of black Americans. Being her two most notable literary works to date, I’ve been questioning if these eras are a fascination of sorts for her, and if so, why? I have a fascination for wondering why white people write fictions, historical or otherwise, about slavery and the Jim Crow South, especially when they take it upon themselves to write in a fictional oppressed black American’s voice (another example is Kathryn Stockett’s world-famous The Help). I try not to get impulsively angry or immediately dismiss what the writer is trying to portray, as I am quite curious to see how they view their past and how they think black people view that same past. So I read her notes and researched Sue Monk Kidd the person, in order to get a better understanding of her and how she conceptualized her topics. Do not get me wrong, I absolutely loved The Secret Life of Bees (I even enjoyed the movie), so much so that over the past few years, I’ve read every other book and story Kidd has written, and enjoyed them all; otherwise, I would have never continued reading her work and then excitedly purchase The Invention of Wings, and I’m so happy that I did. Not only did I learn about how/why the book was written, I also learned more US history that was completely left out during my schooling. (Read her Author’s Note to understand the origin of this book and you might be as inspired to read more into the Grimké sisters, the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s rights.)

Invention of wings

Taking place from the early to mid 1800s, Kidd takes us into the world of historical figure Sarah Grimké and her waiting made (slave girl) Hetty/Handful, as they find their voices, their wings. To give you an idea of what most readers have felt upon reading this book, below is amazon.com’s description:

Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love. As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

I think anyone who reads this tale will be able to self-identify. All of the characters were rich with life and color, making it very easy to latch onto them; their spirits were so palpable and thought-provoking that, upon reading and re-reading certain passages, I found myself questioning whether or not I have truly found my voice and purpose. Who hasn’t struggled to find his/her purpose, voice, individuality? For the fortunate, the struggle is short; for others, it never ends. To know one’s purpose in life is hard enough; thinking of these two women who were fettered by the chains of the times in which they lived, their struggles were all the more remarkable. Yes, this novel is about loss and love, friendship, family, history, and strife; however, it is also about hope, power and empowerment, mental freedom, and finding one’s voice.

The bird does not place its trust in the branch, but on its wings…

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