Title: The Invention of Wings
Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Narrators: Jenna Lamia, Adepero Oduye
Audiobook Length: 13 hours, 46 minutes
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Penguin Audio
Release Date: 7 January 2014
Bottom Line: A bit uneven but Handful’s story is a showstopper
“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.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.”
Thoughts: While Sarah Grimke, and her sister, are worthy subjects of any biography, fictionalized or not, her story within The Invention of Wings is the weaker of the two stories within a story. Sarah is meek and restrained, suffering without truly understanding why she does so. She worries incessantly and makes mistakes the likes of which belie her strong intellect. It is not until she leaves the confines of Charleston society where she becomes more self-assured and prepossessing. This transformation improves her story greatly, and it is a joy to watch her evolve into the fierce abolitionist and suffragette she became. Unfortunately, this transformation does not occur until the latter third of the novel. Until that point, both Sarah and the reader are in a holding pattern, waiting for Sarah to gather the courage to break free and finally do something.
On the other hand, it is the fictional character whose story is the true star of the novel. Handful is the character to which readers will naturally gravitate and with whom they will sympathize the most. Handful is fiercely independent within the constraints of slavery, well-spoken, wise beyond her years, and utterly loyal. She refuses to let slavery become the thing that defines her and develops skills and a sense of courage that could quite easily have gotten her sold or killed. Yet, she never relents, never gives up, and never stops believing in a future of freedom. Even better, Ms. Kidd seamlessly weaves Handful’s fictional narrative into the true details of Sarah’s life, so much so that it becomes difficult to forget that Handful did not actually exist.
The dichotomy of the two stories can be quite jarring as the narrative switches between each girl. One gets involved in Handful’s story and then is rather abruptly thrust into Sarah’s less-threatened life story. While there is no doubt that women had little rights in the 1820s/30s, they still had more rights than slaves, and therein lies the main discrepancy within The Invention of Wings. Sarah’s life is tragic in its own way and amazing for how famous and outspoken she becomes, igniting the cause of women’s rights and adding sparks to the abolitionist movement. For all that she does though, she was never a slave, and her story just cannot compete with that of Handful’s.
One thing Ms. Kidd does extremely well is capture the essence of Charleston. While much has changed since Sarah Grimke lived there, there is much about Charleston that has not. Modern-day visitors will recognize the ongoing pride of its citizens and the rigid class structure that plagues Sarah and confines her actions for most of her life. Similarly, Ms. Kidd’s descriptions of various local points of interest or key buildings are clear and concise and easily followed using any modern-day map. The accessibility she brings to this stately city bridges the gap between past and present, and makes it easy for modern readers to get into the spirit of the novel.
While Jenna Lamia is a talented narrator and always a pleasure to experience, there is too much similarity between her performance in this novel and her performance in The Help. It became difficult to segregate the two performances, especially as both characters tend to be outspoken, hold unusual opinions for their background, and actively promote equal rights. Both performances are solid and delightful, but if one is not paying close enough attention, it is easy to forget which book one is hearing. Ms. Aduye’s performance, however, makes up for any confusion caused by Ms. Lamia’s performance. Her scenes have a vibrancy and poignancy to them that bring Handful and her mama to life. She slips through the slave patois, Gullah, the slaveholders’ vernacular, and the various other dialects throughout the story with ease and grace. While it is difficult to forget that Ms. Lamia is just narrating a story, it is incredibly easy to forget that Ms. Aduye is not Handful but rather is just acting out a part. The rage, impotence, excitement, confusion, hope, and other emotions Handful experiences in her lifetime are tangible byproducts of listening to Ms. Aduye’s performance. For that alone, The Invention of Wings is an auditory experience worth having.
The Invention of Wings is a slightly uneven telling of Sarah Grimke’s struggles to rid herself of her slaveholding past and step out of those imaginary shackles into the leader she eventually becomes. Fascinating enough for everything she had to give up to get there, her story still does not compare to that of Handful, the other half of this two-narrator story. Handful’s upbringing as a daughter, sister, seamstress, and slave is mesmerizing in its thoroughness. Without truly knowing what it must have felt like to experience, Ms. Monk Kidd makes it simple for readers to imagine the ongoing fear, pain, and discontent that must arise from being considered someone’s property. Sarah’s story is interesting from a biographical perspective, but it is Handful’s story that tears out a reader’s heart and revives the shame all people should feel at having kept someone as vibrant as Handful as nothing more than chattel.