Book review: – The Invention of Wings

We all enjoyed ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd. Set between Charleston, South Carolina and Philadelphia in the early 19th century it is a fictionalised account of the early life of Sarah Grimke, an abolitionist, writer, and member of the women’s suffrage movement. The book is told through two voices – Sarah herself and the slave she was given on her 11th birthday – Hetty or Handful.

The book has parallel themes of fear, its converse courage, power and freedom. Wings are a symbol of freedom and they appear in the motifs Handful and her mother Charlotte (skilled seamstresses) sew in their quilts and in the stories they tell.

The narrative is convincing and moves along well, and brought out a good deal of discussion – about the lives and skills of the slaves, the punishments used to control them and the restrictions placed on women in well-to-do households. Handful says to Sarah at one point ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.’

A pivotal point in the book is when Sarah is ordered by her mother to take her dying father to Pennsylvania to see if a cure can be found for him. Away from Charleston she realises that she could manage quite well on her own, and has her first encounter with a Quaker. She starts to find the space to grow her wings, although more time elapses before she and her sister Nina escape the family home for good and together embark on their campaigns.

We talked about the ways in which the filters of culture and experience bias outlook and the courage that it takes for individuals to challenge the established order. Some conservative Quakers were wary of challenging the slave trade, and others still saw the freed slaves as inferior; the male abolitionists didn’t want to move forward on women’s rights at the same time as campaigning to end slavery. Change is a stepwise process and in retrospect progress seems much smoother than it actually was – the bumps get ironed out.