The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Club Selection for January 2017
Pages: 384 / Audio: 13 hrs 46 min
From the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees, a magnificent novel about two unforgettable American women
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world—and it is now the newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
Carol's Rating: ★★★★★
"My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it's the other way around."
This beautiful, moving story of hope and courage stirred my heart and mind through and through. I listened to the audiobook where narrators Jenna Lamia and Adepero Oduye give a dazzling performance and portrayal of two young women; one white, one black; the same age, the same time period, the same plantation - yet living in two separate worlds of expectations and both yearning for freedom.
The story is rich in symbolism and purpose. "She (mauma) use to say, you got to figure out which end of the needle you gon be, the one that's fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth." I became emotionally connected to these fabulous characters as they took measures to protect their minds and spirits from being broken by society throughout their journeys to stay true to their convictions for human rights. I learned that Sarah and Nina Grimke were true historical figures. I learned about Denmark Vecey, story quilts, and spirit trees. I learned once again that we are all "meant to do something in the world, something larger than (ourselves)".
Read it. You'll love it, too.
About the Author
Sue Monk Kidd lived one of those perfect, small town, southern childhoods (except for the swarm of bees in the walls of her 100-year-old house).
She could walk to the drugstore and charge a cherry Coke to her father. Or to Empire Mercantile and charge a pair of cheerleader socks to her mom. By the time she got home, her parents would know what color socks she’d bought and what size Coke she’d drunk.
But the 1964 Civil Rights Movement changed Sue’s idyll forever. Her high school class became the first to integrate. She was 16 and old enough to understand racism’s cruelty. It stayed with her.
In 1970, Sue earned a B.S. in Nursing from Texas Christian University. She worked as nurse, met her husband, Sanford (Sandy), a Baptist minister, and had two children.
In her 30s, she left nursing for full-time mothering, taught Sunday School, and wrote inspirational essays for Guideposts Christian magazine. They led to her first memoir, God’s Joyful Surprise, published at age 40. Source: Debra Eve's Late Bloomer
In her forties, Kidd turned her attention to writing fiction, winning the South Carolina Fellowship in Literature and the 1996 Poets & Writers Exchange Program in Fiction. Her short stories appeared in TriQuarterly, Nimrod, and other literary journals and received a Katherine Anne Porter award and citations in Best American Short Stories’ 100 Distinguished Stories.
Since then she has written several bestsellers such as The Secret Life of Bees (2002), The Mermaid Chair (2005), Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story (2009), and The Invention of Wings (2014). Her novels have earned international acclaim and multiple literary awards as well as some having been adapted into award wining movies.
Kidd serves on the Writers Council for Poets & Writers, Inc. She lives in Southwest Florida with her husband, Sandy, and dog, Barney. Source: Suemonkkidd.com
Interviews & Other Cool Stuff
After reading The Invention of Wings, I was motivated to learn more about the author and the Grimke sisters. What inspired her to write the story? Where did her research begin and where did it take her? How did she come up with fictional characters and the structure of the story?
I discovered a lot of interesting booty! I'm excited to share it with you - to take you deeper into, and even beyond the book.
Listen to this short, compelling NPR interview where Kidd offers loads of insight into the inspiration behind the story. Then keep scrolling to learn even more!
January 8, 2014
Heard on NPR:All Things Considered
Sue Monk Kidd's new novel is a story told by two women whose lives are wrapped together — beginning, against their wills, when they're young girls. One is a slave; the other, her reluctant owner. One strives her whole life to be free; the other rebels against her slave-owning family and becomes a prominent abolitionist and early advocate for women's rights.
The book, The Invention of Wings, takes on both slavery and feminism — and it's inspired by the life of a real historical figure.
Sue Monk Kidd provides a super cool Book Club Kit on her website that includes a conversation with the author, quotes, and recipes. Here are a few tidbits:
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."
~ Professor Julius Lester
I first came upon the Grimké sisters in 2007 while visiting Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Their names were listed on the Heritage Panels, which honor 999 women who’ve made important contributions to western history. Later, I was astonished to discover they were from Charleston, South Carolina, the same city in which I was then living. Somehow I’d never heard of these two amazing women, but I immediately dove in, learning everything I could, and the more I learned, the more excited I became. I discovered that Sarah and Angelina were from a wealthy slave-holding family, at the top of the planter class, moving in the elite circles of society, and yet they broke with everything, their family, religion, homeland and traditions, and became the first female abolition agents in America and among the earliest feminist thinkers. They were, arguably, the most radical females to ever come out of the antebellum South. I fell in love with their story. I was especially drawn to Sarah. I was moved by how thoroughly life was arranged against her and what she overcame, by how deeply she yearned to have a voice in the world, by how utterly human she was, and how determinedly she invented her wings.
I was inspired by the quilts of Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery in 1837 in Georgia. She used West African applique technique and designs to tell stories, mostly about Biblical events, legends, and astronomical occurrences. Each of the squares on her two surviving quilts is a masterpiece of art and narration. After viewing her quilt in the archives of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., it seemed more than plausible to me that many enslaved women, who were forbidden to read and write, would have devised subversive ways to voice themselves, to keep their memories alive, and to preserve their African heritage. In the novel, Charlotte is the Grimke’s rebellious and accomplished seamstress, and I envisioned her using needle and cloth the way others use paper and pen, attempting to set down the events of her life in a single quilt. She appliques it with strange, beautiful images—slaves flying through the air, spirit trees with their trunks wrapped in red thread—but she also sews violent and painful images of her punishments and loss. The quilt in the novel is meant to be more than a warm blanket or a nice piece of handiwork. It is Charlotte’s story. As Handful says, “Mauma had sewed where she came from, who she was, what she loved, the things she’d suffered and the things she hoped. She’d found a way to tell it.
Who Were The Grimke Sisters?
Louise W. Knight, author and historian, provides some great history about the sisters and even addresses the issue of the unflattering "photographs" of the women that are widely associated with them. I was happy to see some different photos of them; ones taken when they were in their 70's (Sarah) and 60's (Angelina). Plus, if you're ever in Charleston, the Preservation Society offers a Grimke Sisters Tour. How cool is that?
Born near the turn of the 19th century, Sarah and Angelina Grimké were white Southern aristocrats of Charleston, South Carolina whose fate at birth seem sealed: by rights they should have married well, mothered many children and managed the slaves who ran their households. Instead, they rejected slavery, which they hated, moved to Philadelphia, and converted to Quakerism, wrongly supposing that it continued to embrace the cause of antislavery. In time, rejected by the Quakers for their reform work, the sisters became social activists in the causes of abolition and ending racial prejudice. Making the principle that no man should have dominion over another man their own, they became the first American women to make a fully developed case against the oppression of women and for women's equal rights.
Sarah Grimké (1792-1873)
Sarah, the older sister, had a scholar's bent, with a judicious mind. Once she established her carefully arrived at conclusions, she never budged, regardless of the consequences. A deeply spiritual person, she was the more tender-hearted of the two sisters. Older by 13 years, Sarah devoted herself to Angelina's care and education to such a degree that Angelina called her "mother" until she reached her twenties. One of the fascinating stories in the book is that of Angelina's influence on Sarah, her beloved and admired sister, at a crucial turning point in their lives. Sarah turned down two marriage proposals, her ambition being aimed in a more unusual direction - that of being a Quaker minister. Sarah was a moderately skilled speaker but her brilliant mind (she had aspired to be a judge, like their father) produced some of the strongest arguments for women's rights ever penned in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837/1838). She also published a moving pamphlet appealing to Christian ministers of the south to oppose slavery (1837). In 1838, she went to live with the newly married Angelina in Fort Lee, New Jersey, helped raise three children, taught in the schools Angelina and her husband Theodore Weld founded, and continued to engage in social action -- particularly the growing women's rights movement of the 1850s, though rarely in person.
Angelina Grimké (1805-1879)
Angelina was by instinct a woman of action, and a natural prosecutor, ready to make a forceful case. Compelled by her hunger for the truth, she possessed great courage in the face of condemnation. Though a gentle personality, she was also a passionate speaker who could command audiences of thousands with the force of her arguments and her unmatched eloquence. She published an appeal to (white) Christian women of the south to petition state legislatures to end slavery, and an appeal to white and black women of the north to join the abolitionist cause. She also was the first American woman to address a legislative body. The opening of her speech, in support of abolitionist petitions to the Massachusetts state legislature, is posted on this website under "Long form blog." (LINK). When she was 33 years old, and at the peak of her fame as a public speaker and organizer, Angelina Grimké married the nation's most prominent abolitionist speaker and organizer, Theodore Weld. Now Angelina Grimké Weld, she and her sister lived with Theodore for the rest of their lives. They raised three children, founded and taught in many schools, and continued to engage in social action, although in less frequent and less prominent way.
What about Those Famous Pictures of the Sisters?
But there is a problem with these images. First of all, although they are frequently described as "photographs," they are not. They are not even daguerreotypes. Rather they are wood engravings based on daguerreotypes that have since disappeared.
Thus the first question to ask about these images is -- Are they accurate as representations? The answer, obviously, is no. Indeed, while I have yet to track down where these engravings were first published, it is very likely they appeared first in a periodical of the 1830s that disapproved of the sisters for being abolitionists and wished to portray them as peculiar and unappealing. This was a common practice of the time -- to draw people as ugly if you disapproved of their politics or, in the case of African Americans, of their race. I see these engravings more as political cartoons than as legitimate representations of the sisters.
In this video adapted from the American Experience: “The Abolitionists,” featuring historical reenactments, learn about the daughter of South Carolina slaveholders who devoted her life to ending slavery and winning equal rights for women. Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah drew upon their strong religious beliefs from an early age to oppose slavery in their native state and throughout the United States. After moving north, they became prominent writers and speakers in both the abolitionist movement and the struggle to obtain equal rights for women. This resource is part of the American Experience collection.
Book Club Mojo
Our entire reading group enjoyed reading and discussing The Invention of Wings.
We discussed how thankful we are for these women and the sacrifices they made toward equal rights that allow women and black people of today so many more freedoms than were ever experienced in their own time period. We talked of having to repress your aspirations for the sake of societal expectations, the alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Sarah and Handful, the complicated relationships between the characters, and how learning to read is a form of freedom in itself.
The topics led to further discussions about why groups of people oppress other groups of people, and why the oppressors will follow along with such behavior? We noted this to be a common thread among some of the books we've read, for example, The Handmaid's Tale, and yet how slavery and oppression have spanned nearly every culture and nationality from ancient times to the present. The WHY of it remains to be our biggest, unanswered question.
"Who Said It?"
Generate some lively discussion with our fun activity filled with quotes from the book.
Here's another great way to get some discussion going.
The Invention of Wings is loaded with symbols representing deeply personal and empowering significance to the characters throughout the story. This short presentation by Juliana Bush highlights a few of them such as Sarah's fleur de lis button, needle and thread, Handful's rabbit-head cane, Charlotte's story quilt, and the spirit tree.
And of course, Discussion Questions from the Author!
1. The title The Invention of Wings was one of the first inspirations that came to Sue Monk Kidd as she began the novel. Why is the title an apt one for Kidd's novel? What are some of the ways that the author uses the imagery and symbolism of birds, wings, and flight?
2. What were the qualities in Handful that you most admired? As you read the novel, could you imagine yourself in her situation? How did Handful continue her relentless pursuit of self and freedom in the face of such a brutal system?
3. After laying aside her aspirations to become a lawyer, Sarah remarks that the Graveyard of Failed Hopes is "an all-female establishment." What makes her say so? What was your experience of reading Kidd's portrayal of women's lives in the nineteenth century?
4. In what ways does Sarah struggle against the dictates of her family, society, and religion? Can you relate to her need to break away from the life she had in order to create a new and unknown life? What sort of risk and courage does this call for?
5. The story of The Invention of Wings includes a number of physical objects that have a special significance for the characters: Sarah's fleur-de-lis button, Charlotte's story quilt, the rabbit-head cane that Handful receives from Goodis, and the spirit tree. Choose one or more of these objects and discuss their significance in the novel.
6. Were you aware of the role that Sarah and Angelina Grimke played in abolition and women's rights? Have women's achievements in history been lost or overlooked? What do you think it takes to be a reformer today?
7. How would you describe Sarah and Angelina's unusual bond? Do you think either one of them could have accomplished what they did on their own? Have you known women who experienced this sort of relationship as sisters?
8. Some of the staunchest enemies of slavery believed the time had not yet come for women's rights and pressured Sarah and Angelina to desist from the cause, fearing it would split the cause of abolition. How do you think the sisters should have responded to their demand? At the end of the novel, Sarah asks, "Was it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?"
9. What are some of the examples of Handful's wit and sense of irony, and how do they help her cope with the burdens of slavery?
10. Contrast Handful's relationship with her mother with the relationship between Sarah and the elder Mary Grimke. How are the two younger women formed-and malformed-by their mothers?
11. Kidd portrays an array of male characters in the novel: Sarah's father; Sarah's brother, Thomas; Theodore Weld; Denmark Vesey; Goodis Grimke, Israel Morris, Burke Williams. Some of them are men of their time, some are ahead of their time. Which of these male characters did you find most compelling? What positive and negative roles did they play in Sarah and Handful's evolvement?
12. How has your understanding of slavery been changed by reading The Invention of Wings? What did you learn about it that you didn't know before?
13. Sarah believed she could not have a vocation and marriage, both. Do you think she made the right decision in turning down Israel's proposal? How does her situation compare with Angelina's marriage to Theodore? In what ways are women today still asking the question of whether they can have it all?
14. How does the spirit tree function in Handful's life? What do you think of the rituals and meanings surrounding it?
15. Had you heard of the Denmark Vesey slave plot before reading this novel? Were you aware of the extent that slaves resisted? Why do you think the myth of the happy, compliant slave endured? What were some of the more inventive or cunning ways that Charlotte, Handful, and other characters rebelled and subverted the system?
16. The Invention of Wings takes the reader back to the roots of racism in America. How has slavery left its mark on American life? To what extent has the wound been healed? Do you think slavery has been a taboo topic in American life?
17. Are there ways in which Kidd's novel can help us see our own lives differently? How is this story relevant for us today?