I’ve been a fan of Sue Monk Kidd since I read The Secret Life of Bees. So when Kidd released her newest novel The Invention of Wings, historical fiction set in the early 19th century, I was eager to read. The book did not disappoint.
The Invention of Wings tells the story of 11-year-old Sarah Grimké who is given 10-year-old slave girl – Hetty “Handful” Grimké – as a birthday present. The slave is intended to be Sarah’s handmaid for the rest of her life. But Sarah cannot countenance owning another human being and refuses the gift.
Raised by an educated father with educated brothers, Sarah believes she is capable of speaking her mind and being heard. She is quite wrong. Not only does Sarah suffer a speech impediment, she also suffers from being a woman.
Yet she pushes on, her personality encompassed in this early description of herself: “Drawing a breath, I flung myself across the door sill. That was the artless way I navigated the hurdles of girlhood.” Flinging herself forward in spite of obstacles is also the way Sarah navigates the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, Handful (the basket name given by her mauma) or Hetty (the proper name given by her owners) struggles just as mightily with her personality and her circumstances. Even at 10, Handful knows that the story her mother tells her about their people in Africa learning to fly is not true. Yet she engages in a life-long struggle to achieve just that.
Handful describes her dilemma this way: “I always had something smart to say, but my voice had run down my throat like a kitchen mouse.” A paragraph later she adds, “I stopped all my fidget then. My whole self went down in the hole where my voice was. I tried to do what they said God wanted. Obey, be quiet, be still.”
Obeying, being quiet, being still are not in Handful’s nature, exacerbating the challenges she faces but ultimately giving her the courage she needs for the crucial moment when she does fly.
Women finding their voices – figuratively and literally – is a powerful theme of this wonderful novel. The Grimkés are real people who lived in Charleston. Sarah and her younger sister Angelina grow into fearless pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements. While Handful is a fictional character, the juxtaposition of the two women – one a black slave and the other a free white – makes their journeys to empowerment all the more striking.
It doesn’t matter station. It doesn’t matter time in history. It doesn’t matter black or white. Women always seek to find their voices, to invent their wings.
As a reader, I found The Invention of Wings totally satisfying. Details of time and place that put me right in the center of the action without overburdening. A plot that intertwined the two stories and moved both along. Suspense. Emotion. A conclusion that wove it all together and did not feel contrived.
As a woman who worked in a male-dominated business and who was ordered at one point to “attend the meeting but don’t talk,” I could relate to the “voice” and empowerment issues Sarah and Handful faced.
As a writer, I am inspired by Sue Monk Kidd’s ability to find fresh ways to describe everything from water to clothing. I admire the way she creates voices for each character that are unique.
With The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd solidifies her place in the Top 10 of my all-time favorite authors. Do not miss this one.