The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

One sentence plot
In early 19th century Charleston, Sarah Grimke is given a slave for her 11th birthday and along with her sister, becomes one of America’s first and most renowned female abolitionists.

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The review
I was inspired to read this book after hearing Sue Monk Kidd speak at an author event recently. Sometimes author events focusing on books I haven’t read can make me feel disconnected and frustrated, but Sue Monk Kidd was a fantastic speaker. I loved that she had come across the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke in a museum, looked into the story of these incendiary South Carolina-born abolitionist sisters, and got inspired to write The Invention of Wings. I love that she took a small historical detail (Sarah had apparently been punished for teaching her slave to read) and turned that slave into an imagined, fully fledged character, Hetty/Handful, who provides a second strong narrative voice. Together they depict different perspectives of both slave ownership in the South, and a woman’s place in America in the 19th century.

The book follows these two compelling and quite charming women from age 11 into adulthood, along with a lovely cast of supporting characters painting a very vivid, claustrophobic world of societal pressures, expectations and norms. The key quote that I think sums up the angle taken in this book is from the slave Hetty/Handful: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round”. That’s stayed with me ever since.

I’ve read and watched a lot of slavery-themed stories recently (The Good Lord Bird, 12 Years A Slave), and this one is very much my favorite. In some ways it has more impact because it is more subtle, more everyday, and more nuanced. I’ve also not read much previously on the links between the abolition movement and feminism: fascinating. The story skips along, and the horrors and sorrows of slavery are well depicted and very memorable, yet the book is also deft, funny and uplifting. The two voices are excellent. The message is that there are different kinds of bondage – and courage and morality and a willingness to act are needed to create and deliver hope. I loved the people in this book. I loved the narration. I loved the messages. And I love that Sarah Grimke really existed. An important read, and also a treat.

The verdict: 5/5

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