Don’t we all want to test our wings and fly? Like Icarus–with his grand, waxen wings–we all have fledgling wings, aching to burst free from beneath the skin. Thoreau reminds us that we live such lives of “quiet desperation.”

With The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd creates an elaborate story about awakening and freedom–deftly interspersed with history, romance, slave narratives, political tracts, and feminist literature. Sue Monk Kidd dove into the depths of history, culture and human emotion–and she surfaced the stuff of legend. Along the ways, she fulfills her wish to illuminate powerful voices in American history…

I love this quote that Kidd references in her “Endnotes” (from Julius Lester):

“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own…”

To me that’s like Harper Lee’s concept of climbing into another’s skin and walking “around in it.” How else can we see and know? Dive into the depths of great fiction and real life. Experience it…

The Historical Connection: Sarah Moore Grimké

The story weaves its way through history. Sue Monk Kidd introduces us to Sarah Grimké, a “real-life” character, who arrived on the literary scene long ago–amid a flurry of controversy and notoriety before (and during) the Civil War. She and her sister, Angelina, wrote about their personal experiences with slavery, and Sarah took her activism one giant leap forward by proposing the radical notion that women should be treated as equals… and that as equals, women would be more powerful allies in the abolitionist movement. Drawing from early letters, historical records, pamphlets, and evidence–Kidd crafts a re-invention of the early activism by these two infamous women–in their pursuit of abolitionism and women’s equality.

Combined with these inspired voices, we’re given a rare (and beautiful) treat as Kidd imagines-to-life the intimate slave narratives of Sarah’s slave…

The Peculiar Institution: Hetty Grimké – Slave Narrative

Hetty is “Handful”–she’s belligerent, demanding, and she’s repeatedly punished for her free-spirited ways. As a slave, she was given to Sarah on her 11th birthday, but both girls didn’t abide by the social conventions of  slavery. In one of her earliest known act of all-out rebellion (and criminal/unlawful activity), Sarah taught Hetty/Handful to read.

Instead of bending (or breaking), Hetty/Handful continues down a path toward freedom. In the novel, she never really fells that she is “owned,” even though her body is restrained (and brutalized) by the institution of slavery and the acts of the Grimké family. She believes she’ll fly away–in keeping with the earliest tales from childhood.

Her mother tells her:

“Handful, your grannymauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

Their spirits “live with the birds, learning to fly,” but the magic isn’t completely gone, though. With their wings still trapped beneath the surface of the skin, Hetty/Handful and her mother pour themselves–blood, sweat and tears–into bits of cloth and thread that capture the stories of their lives. They are not voiceless after all. They piece together a racket, using the only outlet they are allowed. Quilting is no longer simply a utilitarian effort (a way to just keep them warm). It’s a captivating storyboard, revealing a narrative both riveting and dangerous.

Birds in a Cage: Fly, fly blackbird…

One woman (Sarah) was born in a gilded cage; the other in a wrought-iron one. From two, very different perspectives, Sue Monk Kidd offers us an opportunity to feel the pain, to walk around in their skins.

Then, Kidd frees them (with her pen). We watch them fly away–to a bright and free future. We’re left behind, wishing to read the rest of the story. Perhaps it will also inspire us, in learning to fly?

Please note: I read the Kindle version of this book, by Sue Monk Kidd–minus the Oprah Book Club notations. The Invention of Wings was chosen for the Oprah Book Club selection for January 2014.


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