Book Review: The Invention of Wings

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Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledged people. I didn't believe this, never had believed it a day in my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was.

With the prodding of Penny and I The Invention of Wings was picked for the Wink 3 Book Club. We graciously received it from Viking Publishing well before the release date and we were hoping to beat Oprah to the punch and have it read and reviewed by January 1. Yadda yadda yadda it is the middle of February. Not that I didn’t enjoy the book — just life getting in the way as usual!

The Invention of Wings is one of those historical fiction novels that had everything! A heartbreaking setting (pre-Civil War Charleston, North Carolina), strong, plucky female characters and real life historical figures that help shape the story into a not-so-subtle reminder of why we want to keep this type of history in the past! This is not only a story about black and white, master and slave but it also touches on the earliest flames of the feminist movement. Pair with that Sue Monk Kidd’s amazing writing style and you have a novel that you find impossible to put down!

From as long as she can remember Sarah Grimke wanted to become a lawyer. Her father was a lawyer as were her older brothers and she never even considered that she could not follow in this family tradition. Her father indulges her when she is young as she openly expresses her opinions during family debates exclaiming that “she would be the greatest jurist in South Carolina!” if only she were a boy. When she receives her very own slave (Hetty) on her 11th birthday she ceremoniously refuses the gift and writes a certificate of manumission setting her free. Of course, an 11 year old girl has no say in the matter and she is forced to keep her slave.

Hetty (or “Handful” — her true name) is a girl who was born into slavery. She knows no different kind of life. She is the daughter of Charlotte, the strong willed seamstress of the Grimke family. She enjoys helping Charlotte sew and is fascinated by the “story quilt” that is Charlotte’s life’s work. The quilt tells the story of Charlotte’s life so far — her Grand-mauma’s trip from Africa, meeting Handful’s daddy, a particularly brutal punishment — but it is the bird wings and brilliant colours that Handful loves most of all. Handful knows that she is out of her league when she begins the task of handmaid to young Sarah and does not know how to react when Sarah refuses her services. Knowing that she must do as she is told or face the wrath of “Mistress” (Sarah’s strict and often abusive mother) she sticks to Sarah like glue until she is ready to allow her to do her job.


Each chapter is told from the perspective of either Sarah or Handful and I kept expecting it to become a typical romanticized story of two girls from different sides of life who forge an unusual bond of friendship with cheesy expressions of their love and dedication to each other but that never really happened. Yes, Sarah and Handful are close when they are young but when Sarah decides to teach Handful to read there are disastrous consequences and their lives are never really the same after that. Sarah loses her courage whereas Handful finds hers. As they become older they drift apart — Sarah visiting the north, becoming more dedicated to religion and the raising of her little sister, Angelina (Nina) and Handful taking over for Charlotte as head seamstress, finding her own purpose in life and avoiding Mistress’ wrath.

This story spans a timeframe of approximately 35 years — there are more heartbreaks than triumphs (for both women), graphic scenes of slavery at its worst and touching scenes of family loyally at its best. As I was reading I often caught myself thinking of Sarah “Well, that is a very 2014 way of thinking” and I actually found her to be a bit of an unbelievable character. Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the book, I found out that she was a real, historical figure! I am not so sure why I did not read that anywhere before starting the book but it did put the story into a whole different perspective for me after finding that out. The amazing Sue Monk Kidd dedicates the last pages of the novel to how she decided to write about the Grimke sisters and sharing the details of her research into finding out exactly who Sarah and Nina were and how they dedicated their lives not only to the abolition of slavery but also to racial equality and the early ideas of feminism.

I can’t say that I liked The Invention of Wings quite as much as I did The Secret Life Of Bees (which was an EXCELLENT must read!) but I did enjoy this one very much. 3.5 stars!