Saturday, May 17, 2014

#27 [2014/CBR6] "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd

"People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing." (54)

I'd seen The Invention of Wings (2014) by Sue Monk Kidd on book shelves, and I'd heard some buzz about it. With only a very vague notion of the plot, I put myself on the waitlist at the library. And I'm very glad I did. This is the kind of book that I love: full of interesting characters, important ideas, and believable culture and history.

The story is told in alternating chapters from Hetty's and Sarah's perspectives. We first meet Hetty Handful and Sarah Grimke on Sarah's eleventh birthday when Hetty, a young child and household slave, is given to Sarah as a waiting maid. Even living in Charleston, a part of the slave-owning gentry, and as young as she is, Sarah is already against slavery. Yet she is limited by the culture and the law in what she can do and say against this peculiar institution. However, seen from Hetty's perspective, merely disliking slavery, doesn't do much of anything to help her circumstances--stuck in a life controlled by others, where she has no options and no future.

Part of what I liked about this book is all of the interlocking relationships. There is the sisterly friendship between Hetty and Sarah that is constantly strained through the slave/mistress dichotomy. There are the mother/daughter relationships between Hetty and her mother Charlotte, a woman who gives Hetty much of her strength. In contrast Sarah's relationship with her mother is characterized more by control and disappointment. "The truth," she said [Sarah's mother to her], "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." (81) Both Hetty and Sarah also have very important relationships with their sisters. I admired that Kidd was able to balance all of these relationships, keep them interesting, and make them feel real. Sarah fights against the limitations of being a woman in the 1800's while Hetty deals with the much stronger limitations of slavery.

In addition to all of these fascinating relationships is the tumultuous setting of Charleston in the early 1800's. I'm assuming that Kidd did a tremendous amount of research for this novel because it shows. The details and scope of characters and setting is impressive. The intricate laws keeping the slaves in order, as well as the strong and immediate censor of anyone questioning slavery or traditional roles was suffocating. As I read, I kept guessing where the plot was going, and I kept being wrong. At first I thought this would be a coming-of-age story for Hetty and Sarah, but they grew up rather fast for that. The story follows them throughout their lives as Sarah slowly discovers and finds the freedom to do what she wants with her life. I didn't know until finishing the novel that Sarah Grimke is a real person. This made me admire the story even more. Kidd brought the kind of detail and thoughts to a historical figure that made me feel like I knew her.

"We abolition women are turning the world upside down."
"All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks."

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