The Invention Of Wings, set in early 19th century America, combines two subjects that I love to read about: gender and racial equality. Using starkly different voices, Sue Monk Kidd realistically portrays the lives of two people, a black slave child and wealthy white girl. One longs for a life that is her own, the other for an education and a career. In short, both are searching for freedom.
Sarah, the daughter of slave owners in the southern town of Charleston, has been against slavery since she first watched her mother punish a slave as a very small child. The trauma of this causes her to lose her voice for a short time, and although she eventually begins to speak again, she is left with a stutter. Her problem speaking contrasts with her desire to be able to voice her opinions as men do, and although she is given access to her father’s study to read books, she is cruelly crushed by her family every time she attempts to use her knowledge. The idea of a woman with a career was unheard of in 1800’s but I could relate to Sarah’s love of books and thirst for information, and the way she was banned from discovering her own world really got my emotions running!
Named Hetty by her masters, but Handful by her mother, the other protagonist of the novel is a plucky slave child who defies all rules, stealing, escaping from her home to participate in a slave revolution, and bathing in copper bathtubs reserved for white people. Although I love Sarah’s determination and Handful’s mother’s wisdom and love for where she came from, Handful is my favourite character.
Handful is given to Sarah, wrapped in purple ribbons, as a gift for her eleventh birthday. After refusing the present and then trying to set Handful free, Sarah rebelliously teaches Handful to read. Both girls change each other’s lives in their quests for the abolition of slavery and the support of the women’s rights movement. Their friendship is realistic and unromanticised, as they are never shown to be “best friends.” There is always an awkwardness and wariness between them, which grows as they become older and more estranged, but there is also an unspoken promise of love.
The author’s prose is beautiful “I sat at her desk and turned one page after another, staring at what looked like bits and pieces of black lace laid across the paper” and full of meaningful statements “You got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.”
The idea of Africans losing their wings when they were forced into slavery and an illiterate slave’s ability to tell her story through quilting add to the depth of the story and are lovely touches that make the story all the more authentic and appealing.
Kidd’s evocative descriptions made me feel as if I was standing in the house with her characters “For a moment, I stood just inside the room listening to the saber-fronds on the palmettos clatter around the house. The eaves of the piazza hissed. The porch swing groaned in its chains.”
This novel, which follows two little girls through their lives and depicts their struggle against the prejudices set against them, has become one of my favourites. It’s the kind of book I wish I could have written, and it’s a must read if this kind of stuff interests you!
I’ll finish up with a last quote which sums up the essence of the novel perfectly: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.”