My book group chose The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd for our August discussion book, and I was in absolute despair over how impossible it would be to find enough time to read it, when it dawned on me that I needed a new audiobook to listen to and this might be the perfect choice.
Guess what? I was right.
Almost immediately, I became totally wrapped up in this beautiful and powerful story. On top of the quality of the writing and plot, the audiobook narration seemed to suit the characters perfectly, and I was absolutely hooked.
What’s it all about? In short, The Invention of Wings is the story of two women whose lives are joined from childhood onward. One is Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a wealthy planter-class, slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800s. The other is Hetty, known as Handful, the slave girl given to Sarah as a present for her 11th birthday.
Sarah is horrified by the idea of owning a person, and her first action is to steal into her father’s library and copy a document of manumission from his law books, setting Handful free. Of course, Sarah’s parents rip up the document on the spot, but from this moment forward, Sarah and Handful’s lives are tied together.
Sarah Grimke is a historical figure, who became a famous (and infamous) public speaker and writer as an adult, as she and her sister Angelina became outspoken, ardent abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights. Handful, though, is a fictional invention, although her life and experiences could easily have been real in the American South.
In alternating voices and chapters, Sarah and Handful narrate their lives. Each presents the world around herself as she experiences it. Sarah is a prisoner of her family’s expectations and society’s beliefs and prejudices, trapped by her gender and by societal norms into a life that torments her. Handful, of course, is literally a prisoner, enslaved for life and forced to experience and witness one degradation after another, despite her mother Charlotte’s best efforts to shield her and give her strength.
The audiobook has two narrators, Jenna Lamia and
The story itself is absolutely engrossing. The author does not shy away from the brutality of slavery, and we see the daily degradations as well as the more egregious acts of violence and cruelty. Likewise, we witness the painful journey of a girl breaking free and finding her own voice in a world where speaking out can cost you everything.
The two stories contrast nicely with each other, with themes of family and a search for freedom running through both. I didn’t always buy the idea of the parallels between the two characters’ stories. Handful says to Sarah at one point:
My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.
While it’s an interesting concept, there isn’t really an equivalency. Sarah may be bound by society’s strictures, but she’s still free and does not have to worry about staying alive and physically whole on a daily basis. Still, it’s worth thinking about the ways in which each woman has her life defined by forces outside her own control, and by the many small steps and defiant acts each takes to carve out her own place in a world that doesn’t value her or even deem her worthy of notice.
Both halves of the story are quite interesting, although Handful’s chapters have a much more urgent and visceral feel to them, and these are the parts of the story that affected me most deeply. Not to say that Sarah’s story isn’t compelling as well: She’s a quiet but strong presence throughout the book, with a deep moral core that propels her forward and has her constantly seeking her purpose in life.
The book ends with an afterward by the author in which she explains the origins of the novel and her research, and gives an overview of the real Sarah Grimke’s life. It’s fascinating to learn more about this historical figure, and to get a glimpse inside the novelist’s writing process, learning which parts of the story are based on real events and which are woven together from imagination and research into 19th century life.
I strongly recommend The Invention of Wings. This feels like the kind of book I’ll be pushing all of my friends and family members to read. The story itself is engrossing, but it’s the characters — deep, well-developed, and sensitively portrayed — who are the heart and soul of this important book.
Title: The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Publication date: January 7, 2014
Audiobook length: 13 hours, 46 minutes
Printed book length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased (Audible download)