The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
A Review by Dwight A. Moody
Numerous times in the first hundred pages I wanted to give up reading this book. But I kept going because, one, I have this thing about finishing things, and two, friends of mine swore it is worth the reading. Thank you, Jan Crouch and Karen Kimmel Hatter (who wrote in a Facebook post, “That is in my top 10 all time favorite books! Probably top 5, to be honest.”)
It won’t make my top ten, but it is a very clever and compelling narrative. Clever, because it follows two characters, Sarah Grimke and her slave Handful. They live in a wealthy, slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina, in the decades before the Civil War. Clever because the chapters alternate between the two, written in first person for each of them. That alone illustrates the difference in growing up free and growing up slave. And the chapters deal not just with events, but with thoughts and feelings. It is a powerful devise for a novel.
The story is compelling also. Compelling because it traces the conversion of Sarah Grimke, not from sin to salvation, nor from pagan to Christian, but from slave holding to slave freeing. Handful is also converted: from accepting her slave condition to plotting her escape to freedom.
Sarah moved north to live and work among free people; she became (with her sister Angelina or Nina) one of the writers and itinerant speakers of the abolition movement. Her sympathies expanded in the process to include advocacy for women and workers, the former being more prominent in this telling of her story.
Having read the history of the two sisters (Sarah and Angelina), I was familiar with the basic narrative. Their story is powerful, inspirational, and largely unknown. Even Kidd confesses in her “Author’s Note”:
“It was while reading those 999 names on the Heritage Panels in the Biographic Gallery [in the Brooklyn Museum in New York] that I stumbled upon those of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, the same city in which I then lived. How could I have not heard of them?” (page 361).
Numerous people have reacted with some version of that question when I mention the two sisters. It seems to be largely an untold story (and one, I might add, ripe for the stage, even a one person show).
That final addendum by the author explaining what in the novel is historically accurate and what is not was very helpful. She confesses the whole thread about the story quilt was her creation; and it is one fabulous creation indeed. Handful and her mother create and treasure quilts whose patchwork lays out a life story, first of one person, then of another. I have a less dramatic version of that sort of thing on my bed right now: a quilt gifted to my parents at the conclusion of three decades of ministry to a particular congregation.
But I confess the best part of this book is neither the history of these two characters nor the embellishments by this very talented author; it is her gift of language, of expression, of a poetic turn of phrase. Kidd is as much an inventor as her two heroines and her invention of language as mesmerizing as their invention of wings.
Consider these selections, chosen from scores of underlined phrases and many others left unmarked:
“I stopped all my fidget then. My whole self went down in the hole where my voice was.” (13)
“The whole day seemed strung upon a thin, vibrating wire.” (46)
“I would not give up. I would err on the side of audacity. That was what I’d always done.” (78)
“We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but mama found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and once you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck.” (84)
“Whenever I could steal away from the parlor, Hiram and I galloped at splendiferous speeds into a landscape erupting with the same intractable wildness I felt inside.” (107)
“There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.” (115)
“Nobody spoke. The quiet sat on us like a stone you couldn’t lift.” (200)
“It was April and half the heat from hell had already showed up in Charleston.” (235)
“He went back to work, but my heart had been beat to butter.” (245)
“The time to assert one’s right is when it is denied.” (333)
“I was not sorry for loving Charleston or for leaving it. Geography had made me who I was.” (347)
“…she was tiny as ever. Not frail or insubstantial, but distilled, concentrated.” (348)
When you read this book, you will certainly have your own list of favorite phrases; but I’m also sure you’ll have the same kind of gladness I had when finally I laid down the book. Slowly. Finished to the end.