Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Invention of Wings: A Book Review

There was a time in Africa the people could fly.  Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old.  She said "Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself.  She say they flew like blackbirds.  When we came here, we left that magic behind."  Mauma pointed to her shoulder blades and said, "This all what left of your day you gon get 'em back."

Hetty Handful Grimke, a young slave in early 19th century Charleston, South Carolina, learns at her mother's knee to be proud despite her desperate situation in life.  Her mother is an accomplished seamstress who tells her life story through quilts and teaches Hetty the craft, until Hetty becomes even more skilled with the needle than Mauma.

Sarah Grimke, the privileged daughter of a white plantation owner, is brought up quite differently by her mother, who hopes only that Sarah will be a proper young Southern lady and eventually marry well.  Sarah, however, is headstrong and after devouring the books in her father's library, decides she wants to be a jurist just like her father, a "preposterous notion" for a young girl of the time.  At the age of four, she witnesses an act of cruelty to a slave that causes her to develop a speech impediment and affects her outlook on slavery for the rest of her life.

When Sarah is given Hetty as her personal slave on her 11th birthday, Sarah is horrified.  She tries to give her back, but her parents refuse her request.  Instead, the two girls form a bond, and Sarah teaches Hetty to read and write, a forbidden act, until one day their secret is discovered and both are punished, one physically and the other emotionally.

Despite their friendship, Hetty knows she is still a slave in everyone else's eyes and is more influenced by her mother, who, unbeknownst to her, has extracted a promise from young Sarah that she will one day free Hetty.  Mauma is also secretly saving money to buy Hetty's and her freedom eventually.  Despite the cruel punishments she receives for some of her acts of defiance, Mauma becomes even more determined to become a free woman.
"We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but Mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and once you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck."
As Hetty grows up, she performs her own secret acts of defiance, and her childhood friendship with Sarah becomes strained.  Sarah, meanwhile, is facing her own problems and disappointments.  Her only joy in life is her younger sister Angelina, whose care Sarah takes on as her personal responsibility. Angelina is pretty and much more outgoing than Sarah.  She shares Sarah's beliefs on slavery and grows up to become more outspoken and brave in her abolitionist views, eventually pushing Sarah to find her voice and her purpose in life.

The Invention of Wings traces the lives of the two protagonists over thirty-five years.  Monk alternates the voices of Hetty and Sarah, giving the reader two different perspectives of life during the era of slavery.  While Charleston, South Carolina remains firmly entrenched in its traditions, Sarah and Hetty are more critical of those traditions, and through the changes and disappointments they experience, they both eventually find their "wings."

The novel is fiction, but is based on the lives of two actual sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimke of Charleston,  as Kidd explains in the Afterword.   By the late 1830's "they were arguably the most famous, as well as the most infamous, women in America, yet they seemed only marginally known [today]."  The Grimke sisters were the first female abolition agents and among the earliest American feminists, influencing such better-known feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

It has been eight years since Sue Monk Kidd has written a novel, despite the success of her two previous works of fiction, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, two of my personal favorites.  Time certainly hasn't diminished her skills--her eloquent prose and memorable characters are just as strong in this inspiring book.  The book was all the more fascinating to me because of the basis in historical fact.  Why, I wondered, have so few people heard of these courageous sisters? Whatever the reason, after reading The Invention of Wings, no one will forget the remarkable Grimke sisters nor the fictional Hetty and their powerful story.

Disclaimer: No compensation of any kind was received for this review, and I checked out The Invention of Wings from my local libary . . . after a long waiting list. As always, I review only books I enjoy and think others would enjoy reading too. 

Also, the photos here have nothing to do with the novel, other than the fact that one of Hetty's family members becomes quite an accomplished gardener.  Really, it was just a chance for me to show off some of what has been blooming in my garden the past week. Top to bottom: 'Walker's Low' Nepeta, 'Nelly Moser' Clematis, unnamed peony, and 'Immortality' iris.

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@Barrie Summy


  1. I liked BEES a lot and this looks good too. Although I have heard of them I had the notion they were clairvoyants for some reason. Odd.

  2. Your blooms are beautiful Rose.
    Lovely iris..........

    This sounds like a book I would really enjoy....I love your reviews even if I do not choose to read the book.

  3. Beautiful flowers and a beautiful review! Thanks so much.

  4. Enticing review! A neighbor told me about this one but I hesitated because I had been disappointed by Monk Kidd's second book but this one sounds more like her first, The Secret Life of Bees, one of my favorite books. Going on my TBR list. I love your blooms too.

  5. I loved BEES too, but did not enjoy The Mermaid Chair quite as much. However, your review of this book has made me add it to my Kindle for future reading :-)

    I'm currently finishing Wally Lamb's We Are Water, which has been good, but I'm not finding the ending as satisfying as the rest of the novel.

    Next for me, however, is the next Richard Jury book, Vertigo 42!

  6. Great review, it sounds like an amazing book. I loved the excerpts too because it really gives a good feel for the book. Thanks for the review - I will likely be ordering this book for my TBR pile. :)

  7. I was thinking the author's name was familiar, of course. I loved the Secret Life of Bees. Sounds like I need to pick this one up too.

  8. Patti, I had never heard of the Grimke sisters before; I am wondering why they never made it into the history books.

    Cheryl, I think you would enjoy this one, especially since there is so much historical basis to it.

    Stacy, Thanks!

    Sarah, I guess I'm in the minority in liking "The Mermaid Chair," too, but I just like her style of writing. This one, though, is right up there with Bees.

    Cassi, Bees is one of my favorite books read in the last 10 years. Everyone I've talked to who's read "Wings" has loved it, too. By the way, I read "Still Life in Bread Crumbs" after you recommended it, and really enjoyed it. Yes, Richard Jury is on my summer reading list!

  9. Lucy, I loved the voice of Hetty, so I was hoping to give a feel for what she was like. She's such a memorable character.

    Marguerite, If you liked "Bees," you'll love this book, too!

  10. Right, I shall have to read that. I enjoyed the Secret Life of Bees too.

    I recently read A Respectable Trade by Philippa Gregory about the wife of a slave trader who has an affair with a slave. It's set in Bristol, England, and while I'm not convinced by the story the factual detail is incredible and has caused me to be horrified yet again by the whole notion of slavery.

  11. This really does sound like a must read, Rose. You did a wonderful job of review and made me think to pick up the book for myself. I like your garden pics too. It looks like Spring has been kind so far.

  12. I like the garden very much. It's my best hobby. Is this flowers from your garden? Flowers looks amazing.

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  13. Hi Rose, I truly enjoyed this book. It made me feel a part of their world. At various times, I would be more "into" one story than the other. I thought it was fascinating that Sarah was a real person.~~Dee

  14. Love the addition of your garden to this review. I'm one of those people who never heard of the sisters. I loved Sue Monk Kidd's previous two books. I'm looking forward to reading this one, particularly after your review. Thank you!

  15. Now that's the type of book I would enjoy, so thank you for pointing me to it.

    The flower photos are so lovely.
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

  16. I will be looking out for this book in the library after reading your review Rose. Many thanks.

  17. I also take part in the GBBD to keep a record for myself, and even though this is my third year doing it, every June has been different, every May has been different and so on. I think even if I did this for years, I still end up with differences from year to year so still a point in doing it.

    Thanks for the tour in your lovely garden, late or not, it looks very pretty.

  18. Another great book review Rose. I loved the Secret Lives of Bees and this sound like another one I would enjoy reading. I will look for a copy at the library for sure.

  19. I adore this author and both of her acclaimed seems I will be buying this book and reading it this summer after your wonderful review.


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