Although many Brown Baggers were not familiar with historical figures Sarah and Angelina Grimke, we had the opportunity to learn more about their lives through Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Invention of Wings. A fictionalized account, Kidd added the character of Hetty, or “Handful,” the slave presented to Sarah as a birthday present. Through the novel, Kidd weaves alternating narratives of these two women seeking to transcend their circumstances.
Even though it was a fictionalized account, this was an eye-opening introduction to this period of history. A few group members were surprised that the abolition and women’s rights work was taking place so early, as this book is set almost 60 years before the Civil War. Some details were brutal, but necessary to show certain truths. Everyone was appalled at the treatment of the slaves as depicted by the author, specifically Handful’s mother’s punishment on the treadmill. The group discussed the use of the quilt in the story as well. It served as a uniquely non-literate way to pass down a familial and cultural history while also educating the reader. We also discussed their use on the Underground Railroad.
The intersection of abolition work and the fight for women’s rights also made for a thought-provoking read. Some group members felt this split confused the focus of the book. We also discussed some of our implicit biases and how this may affect our opinions reading the book and more generally. The relationship between Sarah and Handful was deftly managed. Sarah had a long and quite realistic journey to realizing she did not in fact understand Handful’s situation as a slave, despite what she thought.
The Brown Baggers also discussed other facets of the author’s writing style. Many group members enjoyed the author’s use of language. Despite — or perhaps because — Handful was a fictional character, these chapters made for better reading. Other parts of the story sometimes felt constrained by the attempt to include so much historical fact. Perhaps unsurprisingly as well, the female characters were much more developed and dimensional than any male figures in the novel. However, Sarah’s mother could have been fleshed out a bit more. For readers of Kidd’s other novels, The Invention of Wings clearly ranks above The Mermaid Chair, but may not match The Secret Life of Bees.
Join the Brown Baggers on March 12 at noon to discuss The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, this year’s Big Read title. We’ve moved the discussion up a week due to the Virginia Festival of the Book, so mark your calendar!
Check out other books by Sue Monk Kidd in the JMRL catalog.
The author’s official website features discussion questions and more.
Background about the Grimke sisters presented as part of the NPS’s Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s website.
More about the Grimke sisters hosted by the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program.
Oprah interviews the author after The Invention of Wings was chosen as a book club selection.