Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is about the brutality of slavery in America’s deep south, at the point when some attitudes had started to change. The novel charts the period between 1803 to 1838 and the first person perspective moves between Handful, a ten year old slave, and Sarah, the girl to whom she is given as a present, wrapped tightly in lavender ribbons. Although ‘owning people was as natural as breathing’, eleven year old Sarah Grimké is uncomfortable with her new gift and this is the beginning of her awakening, and it is the pivotal event to her later pioneering work towards human and women’s rights.
I read this book straight after I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in 1962 Mississippi, and both novels roam between the viewpoint of the oppressed slave worker or housemaid and the developing awareness of the privileged female mistress. It is a device which works well, as the reader is propelled through the injustices and abuses of the women in subjection, who are invariably feisty and strong. We compare this character to the pampered white woman who instinctively understands that the situation in which she finds herself, a mistress who has power over another’s physical and emotional welfare, is not tolerable. In both novels, I found the perspectives of Handful and of The Help’s Minny and Aibileen much more fascinating than those of Sarah or Skeeter, but having both characters’ voices juxtaposed creates the desired impact, enabling the reader to follow the progression of character and plot.
Sarah Grimké was a real person who, against her parents’ wishes, attempted to teach Bible classes to the slaves on her plantation. She hated the degradations of slavery and as a child she aspired to be a lawyer. As an adult, she became a Quaker and was frequently attacked for her abolitionist and feminist views. Sue Monk Kidd charts the development of Sarah, from a tentative girl with an awareness of her own conscience to a woman who is no longer afraid to compromise or to speak her own mind.She says, ‘To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.’
Handful, and her mother Charlotte, are fascinating characters who display courage and cunning in the face of oppression.The comparison between slave and mistress is brought into sharp focus when Handful tells Charlotte ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.’There are passages which are difficult to read. The first time Handful sees a slave being beaten, Charlotte’s punishment for taking a piece of cloth, Handful’s treatment at the workhouse are sharp reminders of both the evils of slavery, past and present.
Sue Monk Kidd’s choice of subject matter and her ability to create two credible voices are central to the novel’s brilliance. Both Handful and Sarah have different lives, they are different characters and their chapters are written to highlight the vast gulf between them, both in terms of personality and experience. They are, however, both heroic. They both begin as children with tentative voices and find strong ones as grown women. Handful’s way of speaking with a slave tongue is no caricature: Sue Monk Kidd creates a real character. She is defiant and we admire her.’You got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.’
Sarah has money and privilege, but she is controlled by her parents’ and society’s expectations of class and gender. She is an awkward child who stutters initially and is isolated, struggling to speak confidently before she develops her convictions and is able to articulate them. ‘If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.’
Despite the fact that The Invention of Wings is based on real events and real people, it is a gripping read, full of tension- filled action and characters which inspire and create empathy. It is well written, in terms of character, voice, setting and plot. Sue Monk Kidd’s ability to use language powerfully and yet retain the individual character’s viewpoint is impressive and the short chapters build at a powerful pace to create a novel of real impact and value.
Most of the male characters are flawed. However much we might admire some of the attributes of Isaac, Goodis, Denmark and Sarah’s father, they are lack empathy, sensitivity or the guile and strength of conviction displayed by Sarah, her sister Angelina, Handful and Charlotte. Then there are the really bad men, Burke Williams and the faceless white workhouse men. Sue Monk Kidd jolts us with the perpetual reminder that the times she writes about were ones where women had fewer privileges and their expectations were low. White women could not own property or make decisions for themselves. The situation of a slave woman was so much worse and The Invention of Wings is very much about the importance of aspiration and desire to make changes happen, to develop the ability to soar above society’s restrictions.
It is a very satisfying novel in terms of women’s ability to fight back, but it is also a source of inspiration and anguish to understand the depth and nature of their suffering. It’s a reminder that we can all stretch our wings. ‘We’re all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren’t we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.’