Book Review by Laura L. Klure
Special to the Voice News
The Invention of Wings is a very thought-provoking novel about life in the American South before the Civil War. Award-winning writer Sue Monk Kidd did extensive research to make the book accurate, and the fictional aspects she added make its emotional impact very strong. The gripping story encourages the reader to continue, even though it feels terrible to read the descriptions of how slaves were treated.
It’s a book especially about the lives of women in the U.S. in the early 1800s. The narrative follows a White daughter in a slave-owning family, and the Black girl who is assigned to her. Chapters alternate between the thoughts of the two girls, continuing well into their adulthoods. Although not as horrible as the devastating punishments inflicted on the Black girl, the White girl is restricted and punished, given only limited freedoms, few choices.
Most of the story takes place in Charleston, South Carolina. The descriptions of Black and White family life, of their labors, of the city, the churches, the antiquated behaviours of the people – these images all come alive for the reader. Even those who have carefully studied many historical accounts about this era will probably find it interesting.
An example of one of the book’s narratives is when the White girl, Sarah Grimke’, is admonished and punished by her father for teaching the slave girl, Hetty Handful, how to read: “How do you suppose she acquired this ability,” he asked calmly. “Did it descend upon her one day out of the blue? Was she born with it? Did she teach her own ingenious self to read? Of course, we know how the girl came to read – you taught her. You defied your mother, your father, the laws of your state, even your rector, who expressly admonished you about it.”
Slaves who could read were considered to be a threat. However, White women were also often very limited in what they were encouraged or allowed to read, to study, or to do as an occupation. These restrictive practices may have been somewhat less in the Northern States, but even after the Civil War, the abolition of slavery obviously did not create complete equality. We’re still working on some of these issues in the 21st Century.
The story is partly based on the lives of two real White sisters, who eventually became crusaders for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women. The writer gives information about the historical connections at the back of the book, but readers will best appreciate the story if they wait to read those notes after finishing the book.
The parallels the writer draws between slavery and the oppression of women are striking. The accounts of how people and churches originally opposed abolition may draw some pointed comparisons with how various aspects of human rights are being treated in the U.S. today.
Published in 2014, this book was chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club. It is now available in hardback, paperback, or kindle versions. It can be found online, and in local bookstores and libraries.