Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I enjoyed this book but somehow I still found it a bit unimaginative.  The story of a southern white woman who takes up the abolitionist cause, as well as her personal slave who she struggles to free, just seemed like one that I had read before - though I hadn't already read this particular book.  Of course, until I read the author's notes at the end, I did not know how much of this story was based in fact - which in retrospect made the story more interesting.

The story is based upon the life of Sarah Grimke, a woman born into a slave owning family in Charleston who, together with her younger sister, Angelina, forsake the life they are born into and move north to become the first women to speak out in favour of abolition.  Because of the constraints put on her life, Sarah, who had wanted first to become a lawyer then a Quaker minister, becomes a vocal feminist as well.  This causes some rift within the mainstream abolitionist movement who feel it detracts from their main goal.  While Kidd includes these factual aspects of the Grimke sisters' lives, she flushes out the details, in particular, giving voice to one of the Grimke slaves, Handful.

The story starts on Sarah's eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful to be her personal maid (Handful is even "wrapped" in purple bows for the occasion).  Uncomfortable with this from the start, she uses a book written by her father, a judge, to draft a document granting Handful her freedom, but it is ripped up by her parents who say she must respect their way of life.  Despite that she vows to Handful's mother to find a way to grant Handful her freedom - and starts by secretly teaching her how to read.

The book alternates chapters between Sarah and Handful and carries us into their adult lives.  Along the way we witness discrimination against women - Sarah's father and brothers mock her desire to be a lawyer and her mother pushes her to find a husband though she proves very unlucky with men.  But we witness even greater cruelty to slaves and even free blacks like the boyfriend of Handful's mother who tries to organize and insurrection (and is also based on an actual person).

And throughout we witness Sarah's struggle to find a way to keep her vow to free Handful - but she must work against her parents and later her sister and it is not easy to accomplish even when she has the money to "buy" her back from her mother just so she can set her free.

In the end we are given some glimmer of hope that slavery will come to an end, but see why discrimination will continue for decades - as even the staunch abolitionists do not have equality as a goal.

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