The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Posted July 31, 2020 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

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The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd

Publisher: Penguin Books on January 7, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult
Rating: ★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

 

It’s a little intimidating to have such a negative opinion of such a well-loved book by such a well-loved author.  But nevertheless, I have some… thoughts on what Sue Monk Kidd cooked up in The Invention of Wings and I feel like this is a good story about staying in your lane.

The Invention of Wings is told in two POVs – Sarah Grimke and her slave Handful.  The first problem here should be obvious, and that is simply that we are far past the need to have an old white woman write a story from the point of view of a Black slave.  Sue Monk Kidd got away with some stuff when she wrote The Secret Life of Bees, but I think that story worked because she kept it in Lily’s POV.  Had she turned around and tried to write August, June, or May… I would have been out.  Here?  I’m out.

Considering she set out to tell the story of two abolitionist growing up in Charleston, SC, the edge of almost white savoriness to this book is… disappointing, but unsurprising.  I do believe the author generally thinks she put a good story out there, one that is against racism… while she is passively marginalizing Black voices by using her power to tell Black stories.  We are past this.  What she could have done, and perhaps it would have been great, is co-write this story with a Black author and let them tell Handful’s story.

But.  That’s not what happened.  So immediately, this rubs me the wrong way.

Sarah Grimke is a real historical figure – a young woman who joined the Quakers with one of her younger sisters and spoke against slavery.  And while the subject of slavery does come up frequently, it always seem to take Sarah by surprise.  “Oh dear brothers, what are you talking about? Slavery?  Oh that’s a terrible institution.”  And then they laugh her off.  It’s peppered in like someone holding heir head high and saying they are doing an important thing, but actually they are more interested in something else and keep forgetting about the Important Thing until it’s time for a bit of plot advancement.  For Sarah, this is so much about romance.  There’s a throwaway section early in the book about a beau that didn’t work out, pages and pages of unnecessary story if Sue Monk Kidd really wanted to write a culturally important story.

But I don’t think that’s what Sue Monk Kidd really set out to do.  This feels like a book about relationships – romantic, parental, and between friends.  It’s not altogether all that heartwarming, either.    There’s a lot of awkward telling and dramatic speeches that fall away useless and brave actions that amount to nothing and just… it was a waste.  It felt like a waste of time and paper.  And I know that’s mean!  I’m sorry.  It’s how I feel.

Perhaps Sarah Grimke was a uniquely fascinating woman.  But The Invention of Wings feels like a  story written to capitalize on a romantic story using social justice and Black suffering as a backdrop and weak motivator, in a similar vein as her other highly successful book but with far less respect or impact.  You can skip this one.  Really.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★
Plot:
Characters: ★★ 1/2
Writing: ★★★
Pacing: ★★
Narrator: ★★
Personal Enjoyment:

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Have you read any pre-Civil War era books by Black authors?  I’d be interested in expanding my understanding of this era in history from the other side.  Leave me your recs in the comments!

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