Sparked by Words

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is a well researched work of historical fiction, one, to an extent, that rights a grievous wrong. It’s the territory of fiction to be able to do that: make things right. Yet the book also tells the read story of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two courageous Southern women who challenged two social aberrations that identified the first century of this great nation. They exposed the horrors of and fought against slavery. They worked to bring the right to vote to women.

I don’t know how old I was when I realized that our country had once allowed the ownership of human beings and had done so with a blind eye toward its violent abuse and stringent governmental regulations that made fighting slavery a hugely risky endeavor. I was very young. I was horrified. The more I learned about slavery and how it came about – the slave ships, the uprisings, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War – the more I questioned how decent people could do the heinous things once done to black slaves. Knowledge of slavery (and the internment of Japanese Americans’ during World War II, and the betrayal of American Indian treaties, among other awful but legal situations) fractured my sense of the absolute apex of righteousness that I’d felt belonged to the United States. To learn that I’d been so very wrong about us, even in history more than a hundred years old, made me begin to question our entire sense of humanity. Did we truly have any?

I learned, eventually, that our country overcame many instances of social and economic injustice, that continuing to right injustices is what makes us a better nation than many. We don’t give up even when we discover the depth and breadth of hateful, prejudicial attitudes and the reprehensible behaviors of some citizens of our nation. We don’t give up; we keep trying to right the wrongs. I’ve always hoped this country would continue the struggle to endow the rights of all men.

The Invention of Wings tells the story of two sisters about whom I’d known nothing, but who were famous in their own time, the 1830’s, for their rebellion against standards of society that allowed enslavement. Thirty years before the beginning of the Civil War, these two women campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Thousands of people heard and respected them. Thousands of others jeered and threatened them.

Kidd’s well researched book begins with Sarah Grimke’s eleventh birthday. The child of a wealthy plantation owner in Charleston, South Carolina, she lives a privileged life though she despises her mother’s vile disposition. Her birthday gift is a slave, a child adorned with satin ribbons on her undernourished body. She is named Hetty but called “Handful.” Handful was a real person but one who did not live much beyond that notorious birthday when Sarah, disgusted by ownership of a human being, refused to accept the slave as her property. The real Handful was whipped because Sarah taught her to read and apparently died very young.

In Kidd’s book, Handful survives and subtly defies her white owners and the Southern culture that not only condones slavery but insists on it. Her mother, Charlotte, tells the child a story about when Africans had wings and could fly, and that someday all those of African descent will regain their wings. Charlotte secretly makes a quilt, a long worked on project that showcases her life’s most important moments. The quilt is her freedom, but its existence is a dangerous act of rebellion. When Charlotte disappears, only the quilt remains to remind Handful of all that is possible within one’s imagination. Because of Handful’s rich inner life, she is in some ways more free than Sarah, who must conform to her community’s standards lest not only she, but her family as well, suffer.

Sarah wants to become a lawyer like her beloved father but her goal is considered inappropriate for her station; Southern women can achieve no such status as it’s intended only for men. Instead, she and her younger sister, Angelina, travel north where they write pamphlets and give speeches about the horrors and injustices of slavery. They also promote women’s suffrage. Sarah draws huge audiences who are captivated by her passion. One of her written treatises was in fact the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sarah’s life was dedicated to righting  these egregious wrongs, and she forfeited love and marriage because of her commitment to her causes.

Kidd’s book shows how four women, two white and two black, fought against the powers of their time. It tells of the horrors of slavery in unvarnished, often horrific images. It creates an intellectual and spiritual scaffold for implementing social justice. It gives me hope that terrible circumstances can be endured and that goodness will overcome evil.

My favorite line from the book is this: Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. Yet from this paucity of decency, Charlotte managed to give her beloved daughter, Handful, a sense of freedom and hope, that there had been a better life once and might be again.

The Invention of Wings was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction

 

Other books that were serious contenders for I:

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

I Know this Much is True by Wally Lamb

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite I fiction books.

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Books

 

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Comments on: "I is for The Invention of Wings" (29)

  1. I read it before…a lovely read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your interesting and in-depth review Sharon. I was very moved by this excellent book when I read it. Not only did it highlight the evil of slavery in the 19th century, but it tied in with a practical interest of my church, namely the evil of modern-day 21st century slavery, which takes the form of People Trafficking. I saw the shocking statistic somewhere that more people are in slavery today than in any other time in history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was aware when reading the book that along with my lack of knowledge about the Grimke sisters’ courageous campaign to promote human rights in the early 19th century, we still face egregious human rights violations today. Trafficking in people is one of the current world scourges that takes its toll on people already desperate, poor, and without adequate representation. Children and women are often the targets of sex trafficking while men are forced to labor and military (often in support of illegal activities) purposes. Healthy but impoverished people are harvested for their organs, going always to those rich enough to pay. Thanks for your comment, Denzil. We still have a lot of work to do.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. This sounds like a good nomination, Shari. It’s hard to imagine those times were 150ish years ago. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Jacqui, it seems time distant but the painful history of slavery in this country resonates today. Certainly we still need to address some civil rights issues and to be vigilant in protecting those already rectified.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You were much more aware of the world than I was as a child. I was clueless about slavery . . . and probably still, as an adult, cannot fully grasp the horrific implications.

    Despite our “worst” intentions – were it not for slavery this country would not have the marvelous minds and contributions of the descendants of slaves. God’s love ultimately prevails man’s “inhumanity”.

    “Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.” – WOW! Such a wonderful quote. Sue Monk Kidd must be as good a wordsmith as Shari Bonin-Pratt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The good that people manage to create out of despicable situations is not justification for the original offense. If that were true, no one would ever see need to behave humanely.

      Sue Monk Kidd is a much better writer than I am, but thank you for your sweet words, Judy.

      Like

  5. I’ll never understand where the acceptance of owning another human being becomes okay in one’s heart. Historical fiction has to be the hardest to write especially the injustice. Thank you for this, Shari.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Audrey, I believe that slavery only happens when people convince themselves there is an “other” who is less than they are. So does war and all hatred in general.

      I find historical fiction somewhat easy if a character or moment captures my imagination – the facts are always there to back you up, a built in story scaffold.

      Do you have an I book to recommend?

      Like

    • I read somewhere that slavery started out as not such a bad thing. It was a way for people without wealth to be taken care of–if that’s true it certainly got corrupted over time. Wednesday was Human Trafficking Awareness Day. It boggles my mind that even here in the US there are still plenty of victims of slavery–even here in Upstate New York! But they go unnoticed since many are children.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved The Invention of Wings, too, and Island of the Blue Dolphins is one of my childhood favorites. I would add to your list I Shall Be Near to You by Erin McCabe, the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man so she can fight alongside her husband in the Civil War. It’s a short read but it grabbed my heart. It even made me cry in public.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t sure when I started to compile the titles I wanted to include whether or not to consider children’s books, then decided I’d include those that had a profound impact on the way I felt about the world or what I learned about writing.

      Thanks, Ilene, McCabe’s book sounds like one right up my reading alley. Made you cry in public – that’s convincing right there.

      Like

  7. when I saw the movie Reds was the first time I understood that laws are nothing if they’re not respected & upheld

    what format do you prefer to read books in?

    am currently listening on cd to Phantom of the Opera – embarrassed to admit that musical has never done much for me – the book, however, is stupendous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t seen that movie in decades – maybe I’ll check it out.
      I read books, paper format. I don’t even own an e-reader, and I’m a terrible listener so I can’t listen to books on tape. My mind wanders too much – I’d never get off the first page. I’m bit envious that you can listen to books on tape. Interesting question, Daal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ah – that’s right – you’d mentioned about not enjoying audio books before. I’m with you about reading online – somehow find it claustrophobic…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m kind of a hold out for old school. Actually, I think I’d tire quickly of having to swipe the screen to change pages. When I read a book, I often have an idea about where I first read info that I later want to re-read – right hand page, about 2/3 down, within the first 100 pages. I can’t do that with an e-reader.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. That sounds like a fascinating book. I’m very interested to read it. “Handful” is a much better name than “Hetty,” by the way. If I’d thought of it, I might have used it for one of my sons. (I’m assuming it’s a unisex name like “Sam.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • All parents would probably change their kid’s name about 6 or 10 years into the bargain, don’t you think? Some cultures give their children a baby name and then choose a different one when their personality emerges. In Japan it was common to name sons in order of birth, i.e, first, second, third, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Goodness, I just read the bit about Handful again and realized that in real life she died young and only survived in the fictional version. Now I feel my joke was very disrespectful, which it wasn’t meant to be. I’m still very interested in reading the book, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great review of one amazing book – I read it a while ago but it is still fresh in my mind. Reading your post has me wanting to read this again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pleased my review inspires you to read the book again. Sue Monk Kidd is such a gifted writer. Every one of her books touches me in resounding ways, but this one also has implications for current civil and political situations. Thank you for reading, Annika.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Consistently fabricated

    Liked by 1 person

    • The part about Handful/Hettie is certainly fabricated, as Sue Monk Kidd acknowledges. The part about Sarah Grimke is fiction that parallels the facts of her life.
      Or were you referring to my review of the book being fabricated? Of course it is, it’s only my opinion.

      Shiva, thank you for reading the post and for your comments.

      Like

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