Book Club Gals read The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk KiddLast Friday thirty women gathered to discuss Sue Monk Kidd‘s novel, The Invention of Wings.

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.

“If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.” Sarah Grimke

Our book club moderator began by showing a few pictures of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who became celebrated abolitionists and suffragettes in early to mid 19th century America. They looked worn and unemotional.

Everyone who attended endorsed this novel for its exploration of enslaved peoples – those enslaved for their colour and those whose freedoms were severely restricted because of their gender.

We had a rich discussion of themes: freedom, rising above the boundaries imposed by life’s circumstances, the powerful and the powerless, meanness born of frustration, the importance of education, the slave economy, personal courage, sacrifice. A novel touching on so many compelling ideas offers much for readers to consider.

Some felt that Sarah Grimke’s story was not as compelling as the story of Handful, the handmaid who became her friend. Others expressed horror at episodes describing the attitudes about and treatment of slaves.

  • “She had whip scars gnarled like tree roots from the top of her back down to her waist. On her right shoulder she’d been branded with the letter W.”
  • “By law, a slave was three-fifths of a person.”
  • “There are sad truths in our world, and one is that slaves who read are a threat.”
  • The treadmill in the Work House where slaves climbed on a spinning drum as fast as they could to make the mill wheel turn and grind the corn. “Two black-skin overseers paced with cowhides–cat o’nine tails, they called them–and when the wheel slowed, they hit the backs and legs of those poor people till you saw pink flesh ripple.” Handful was put on the treadmill.
  • The one-legged punishment. “… they wind a leather tie round the slave’s ankle, then pull that foot up behind him and hitch the tie around his neck. If he lets his ankle drop, the tie chokes his throat.”

Everyone appreciated Sue Monk Kidd’s efforts to bring accurate historical detail to the story and the range of distinctive characters she included.

On a personal note, I found the story faltered in the second half when Sarah Grimke moves to Philadelphia and we hear less of Handful’s dramatic story. It felt as though the author wanted to tell two stories – one about slavery and the other about the Grimke sisters – and by blending them, each was compromised.

The Invention of Wings is a story none of us will easily forget, with lessons we will all remember.

A Year of Reading – Part 2

On Tuesday, I posted books read between January and June 2014. Today I’ve included those from the balance of the year using the same rating scheme: GR = good read, several caveats; ER = excellent, few caveats; OR = outstanding; DNF = did not finish; NMT = not my type; LR = light, enjoyable read.

Jul The Miniaturist Jessie Burton OR Atmospheric, set in 17th century Amsterdam; review for Washington Independent Review of Books
The Invention of Wings Sue Monk Kidd ER Begins in 19th century Charleston when Sarah Grimke is given Hetty to be her handmaid
The Shadow of War Stewart Binns GR HNS article on WWI novels; confused by too many story threads
Aug A Cool & Lonely Courage Susan Ottaway GR HNS review; non-fiction; too linear, too many extraneous details
The Queen’s Exiles Barbara Kyle LR Drama set in Tudor times; part of Thornleigh stories
Certainty Victor Bevine ER HNS review; great character study and court drama
Voyage of Strangers Elizabeth Zevlin GR HNS review; set during Columbus’s time; too slow
Sep Devil’s Cave Martin Walker LR Detective Bruno mystery set in France
GI Brides Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi GR HNS review; non-fiction
Oct The Divine Sarah Arthur Gold & Robert Fizdale ER Biography of Sarah Bernhardt
The Yellow Birds Kevin Powers GR Book club; soldier returned from Iraq; fragmented non-linear structure
An Invisible Thread Laura Schoff NMT Book club; Too sappy for me
The Summer Queen Elizabeth Chadwick OR Superb; first in a series on Eleanor of Aquitaine
The Lewis Man Peter May ER High suspense mystery
Gray Mountain John Grisham GR Disappointing for a Grisham novel; a rant on the coal industry
Never Forget Angela Petch GR WWII & present day; set in Italy
Nov The Husband’s Secret Liane Moriarty ER Book club; Slow start followed by great build up to surprising climax
The Course of Honour Lindsey Davis ER Set in ancient Rome
Dec Arctic Summer Damon Galgut GR HNS review; fictional biography of E.M. Forster
Stormbird Conn Iggulden ER First in series on the Wars of the Roses
Me Before You Jojo Moyes LR Book club; A bit too sappy and predictable
Wild Cheryl Strayed ER Non-fiction; occasional slow bits but a page-turner

Good news, I received two books for Christmas: Penelope Fitzgerald – a biography of this writer by Hermione Lee and Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. And the mail just delivered Sisters of Heart and Snow by Margaret Dilloway to be reviewed for the Historical Novel Society. Hopefully 2015 will also be a year full of books.

What were your favourites from 2014? Any idea of how many you read last year?

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.