“The Invention of Wings” is a historical fiction novel based on a true story and written by Sue Monk Kidd. It was published on Jan. 7 2014 by Viking.
If the author name sounds familiar, it may be because you remember her critically acclaimed novel, “The Secret Life of Bees” from the early 2000s, or the film adaptation that came several years later. She’s published a few more things since then, but this newest novel, “The Invention of Wings,” seems to be once again taking the literary world by storm.
So, what is it about?
“The Invention of Wings” is a fictionalized account of the real life abolitionist and then suffragette, Sarah Grimké, as she grows up in Charleston, S.C. in the early nineteenth century. It tells most of her life story, starting from her eleventh birthday when she is given her own slave as a present, to well into her later life as a full blown political activist.
The novel is told by two separate points of view. First there is Hetty “Handful” Grimké, the slave whom Sarah receives. Handful starts out as a very curious young girl who is extremely taken in by her mother’s folklore and complex sewing abilities. Over the course of the novel, Handful is taught many things by Sarah in secret, things that slaves aren’t allowed to be taught. Handful begins to see the world for what it is, and has painstaking realizations that slavery was not her god given destiny, she was just a victim of it. She becomes a rebel in the making.
Sarah Grimké is the other point of view. Whereas Handful uses more physical action to solve her problems, Sarah is a thinker. She has many social dilemmas—low self-esteem, a terrible stutter, a lack of interest in settling down as a housewife and many radical beliefs that get her in trouble with her family. Sarah’s image of herself is repeatedly crushed throughout the novel as she can’t seem to find love, receive the same education as her brothers or become the lawyer that she wants to be, in a time where female lawyers don’t even exist yet. Emboldened by the fire and ferocity of her younger sister, Angelina, Sarah takes life into her own hands.
So, is it any good?
I went into “The Invention of Wings” with some nervous expectations and found it to be pretty spectacular. Before this novel, I’d never been a big fan of stories about life in the Antebellum south. Slave narratives and long accounts of the colonial aristocracy just don’t grab me that much. There’s something about the perspective of “The Invention of Wings,” simultaneously focusing on black and women’s rights, combined with two very different characters who both find ways to overcome all odds that makes the novel such an entertaining read.
Another point is that, while it’s a fictionalized account, a lot of what happens in the novel is actually true. Not only are the characters gripping, but you also get affirmation what you’re reading has real merit. The back of the novel has a detailed account of everything true and everything fictionalized or slightly reframed for storytelling. For instance, while Handful was a real person, there is no documentation on her life other than Sarah receiving her as a present. Most of Handful’s story is a fictional account, but it serves to show the daily life of slaves in Charleston and give a different perspective of Sarah.
“The Invention of Wings” is absolutely buried in religion. Particularly Sarah, from her late twenties and onward, is so absorbed in her religious beliefs that it is the primary tool in most or all of her decision making. One might think, as I did, that this could prove to be detrimental to the story as it bases too much of Sarah’s decisions on blind faith rather than reason or a compelling notion, and could create distance between her character and the reader. I’m going to say that, for the most part, Kidd handled religion very well in the novel. There were certainly a few small moments where Sarah’s obsessive devoutness distanced me from her character, because she wasn’t thinking much for herself and I lost interest. However, it was too scattered to have a lasting effect on me. The novel has many takes on religion though—there are characters who apostate, convert, use it to save lives, abuse it to fear monger and deal punishment and some who are left very scarred by it. Ultimately, religion has to play a big role one way or another, as it was crucial to the time period.
Overall, “The Invention of Wings” is very worth reading. I’d especially recommend it to people who do not normally enjoy colonial period stories, because this one certainly transcends most others in the genre.
You can buy “The Invention of Wings” on Amazon, BookDepository.com, Barnes & Noble and most other major booksellers.