Review: The Invention of Wings

It’s a great day to read a book! Today I want to talk about Sue Monk Kidd’s newest novel, The Invention of Wings. This one’s been on my TBR list for months, and as I’ve made it my mission this year to catch up on books I’ve been putting off, I decided it was the perfect time to pick this one up.

Before I go further, I’d like to point out that I prefer two kinds of summer reading: light stories that are perfect for relaxing and recharging in the sun, and stories with more serious implications that are perfect for keeping your brain from turning to mush from all that relaxing. The Invention of Wings belongs to the latter group; it’ll make you think about your place in the world, and the progress of equality.


About the book: Sarah Grimke is a middle child in a wealthy, white Charleston family in the early 1800’s. Sarah is a plain girl, and would go largely unnoticed amongst her many siblings if it wasn’t for her unusual ideas: the most prominent of which is her aversion to slavery. When she is given her own slave as a hand maid for her eleventh birthday, Sarah tries to give the ten year-old servant girl back to her mother, and when that fails, she writes up the document that would free Hetty “Handful”, only to find it torn up outside her door the next morning. Handful’s mother coaxes Sarah to vow that she will find a way to free Handful from slavery, and Sarah adds this to her list of impossible dreams, which begins with her desire to become a lawyer–a profession closed against females at the time. Years pass as Sarah and Handful both attempt to forge better futures for themselves and also to make peace with pasts and people they can’t change. The story is told through alternating sections of Sarah’s and Handful’s lives that allow readers to see multiple perspectives and keep an eye on all parts of the story.

This is a story about two women’s desires to end slavery and to find their proper place in America, but it is also a story about the relationships these women have with their parents. In Handful’s case, her mother’s determination to prove she belongs to herself more than anyone else gives her strength. Handful’s mother dreams of freedom and impresses its importance on her daughter. She won’t give up her efforts to buy her own and Handful’s freedom, but that’s a long endeavor; in the meantime, she makes sure the Grimkes know who will have the final say in her life, and Handful pays attention:

“I was about asleep when she said, ‘I should’ve sewed that green silk inside a quilt and she never would’ve found it. I ain’t sorry for stealing it, just for getting caught.’ ‘How come you took it?’ ‘Cause,’ she said. ‘Cause I could.’ Those words  stuck with me. Mauma didn’t want that cloth, she just wanted to make some trouble. She couldn’t get free and she couldn’t pop missus on the back of her head with a cane, but she could take her silk. You do your rebellions any way you can.”

Handful and her mother are very close and help each other in every way they can. Sarah’s relationship with her mother and father is more complicated. Her father is a lawyer, and seems to favor Sarah’s quick mind and radical ideas from a young age, which leaves Sarah wanting to follow in his footsteps and study the law. As she grows older, however, and her parents realize how serious she is about persuing this unusual path, they make every effort to squash her dreams and mold her into a proper young lady who is seen rather than heard, and doesn’t rock the boat of tradition. Her father’s sudden and public rejection may hurt the most initially, but it is her mother’s continued remarks and efforts that lead Sarah to doubt herself and her abilities.

” ‘Every girl comes into the world with varying degrees of ambition,’ she said, ‘even if it’s only the hope of not belonging body and soul to her husband. I was a girl once, believe it or not.’ She seemed a stranger, a woman without all the wounds and armature the years bring, but then she went on, and it was Mother again. ‘The truth,’ she said, ‘is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good. You are unusual only in your determination to fight what is inevitable. You resisted and so it came to this, to being broken like a horse.’ “

Sarah does find a friend and intellectual companion, however, in the youngest of her sisters, Nina. Nina is full of action where Sarah is full of ideas, and as a pair the two become unstoppable. Still, even with someone on her side, Sarah is met at every turn by efforts–especially from her parents–to silence her voice and put her back in her place as a woman–behind the man she belongs to. Whether that be a husband, father, or brother, Sarah is constantly reminded that her words carry less weight than a man’s, which impedes her abilities to fight for abolition. She may be a free white, but she’s oppressed nonetheless, and her closest confidants, Nina and Handful, know that best:

Be careful, you can get enslaved twice, once in your body and once in your mind. I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.’ “

Still, Sarah refuses to give up. Her dreams may change shape, but they never go away. Even at her lowest points, swamped in despair, Sarah refuses to change who she is or ignore her conscience, which is remarkable considering how low some of her depressions take her.

“They say in extreme moments time will slow, returning to its unmoving core, and standing there, it seemed as if everything stopped. Within the stillness, I felt the old, irrepressible ache to know what my point in the world might be. I felt the longing more solemnly that anything I’d ever felt, even more than my old innate loneliness.”

I’ve got to be honest: I was a little worried about how much I would like this book before I began. Writing about slavery in the early 1800’s is difficult: historically, events are already set, and clearly a well-received book won’t possibly be promoting slavery–therefore, I was worried that it would be too predictable. The main character would oppose slavery in a time when that was a minority opinion in the south, and after years of struggle, our well-known abolitionists would step in to lend a hand, the Civil War would begin, and justice would begin to triumph. Historically, the story is already set.

Luckily, that’s not how The Invention of Wings goes. Sue Monk Kidd stuns her readers with an awing tale of minority empowerment, twining the quest for racial equality with that of gender equality and doing it through lesser-known historical figures who really did fight to make these changes in America. When I began, I thought the name Sarah Grimke sounded vaguely familiar, but high school history lessons are fuzzy in my memory at best. What really made this story stand out for me was the Author’s Note at the end of the book which informs the reader that much of the background information of The Invention of Wings is true to the life of the real Sarah Grimke, who really did spend her life arguing for abolition and equality. Sue Monk Kidd’s book is indeed a work of fiction, but many of the characters, places, and events of the story are real or speculated based on fact. This is exactly the kind of wonderful historical fiction that sparks further interest in real details of the past that have been forgotten or overlooked. Sarah Grimke is an inspiring character, and all the moreso because her name, at least, if not her personality, can be found in history books.

My reaction: 4.5 out of 5 stars. This is a captivating story written expertly. It did feel a little slow at times, but the sections were short enough that a slow one here or there was no trouble to pass through. I loved the symbolism in the book, and especially the title, which serves as a reminder that when one needs to fly away, one needs only to look to him- or herself for the means with which to do it. I also appreciated that there were characters and events throughout the book which serve to remind the reader that not every chapter in life has a happy ending, and some things cannot be forgiven or forgotten, no matter what happens next. There are things worth remembering.

Further recommendations:

  1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe would be a great follow-up to The Invention of Wings if you’re interested in reading more on the quest for abolition in America. Sue Monk Kidd mentions in her Author’s Note that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was inspired by a powerful essay written by the real Sarah Grimke; this book further demonstrates the state of America leading up to the Civil War.
  2. If you’re interested in seeing where racism stands in a more modern setting, try Jesmyn Ward’s beautifully impactful memoir, Me We Reaped, about her family’s struggle to survive and thrive in rural Mississippi. (This one’s nonfiction, but not at all difficult to read.)
  3. If you love Sue Monk Kidd’s writing and want to try another of her stories, The Secret Life of Bees is a fantastic book and would be a great place to start.
  4. Last but not least, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is the perfect place to begin if you want to read more fiction about the plight for female equality worldwide. Centered around the lives of two women in Afghanistan, this novel demonstrates fatal results of the power gap between men and women there, while highlighting the strength and perseverance of the main female characters.

What’s next: I’m reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, another historical fiction tale with a strong female lead. This one’s set in 1920’s postwar London, and features a romance, a murder, and  a whole lot more.

Free your mind. Make a difference.

The Literary Elephant

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