Saturday, June 21, 2014

Readings and Greetings: The Invention of Wings

I'm missing Handful, her mauma, and Miss Sarah.  For four days this summer I spent time in the early 1880's in Charleston, NC with these three strong-willed and talented women;  two slaves who are denied their freedom, and a young white girl who is denied her life's dream of becoming a lawyer like her brothers.  Their lives, though fictional to some degree, touched my soul and perspective on the freedoms we take for granted.  Some characters rise up out of the pages of a book, like Scout and Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Now through the skilled hands of Sue Monk Kidd we have another classic filled with the will to survive, courage, pure stubbornness and defiance, intellect, guilt, and the limitations imposed by society on women and slaves.  

The Invention of Wings is loosely based on a real life character, Sarah Grimke, who later in life did become an active abolitionist and wrote letters and gave speeches on the rights of women to vote, but the gut of the story is the relationship Sarah develops with Hetty (Handful), the slave given to her on her eleventh birthday.  Even before Sarah took it upon herself to teach Handful how to read, they had already crossed a dangerous line with the times they spent locked behind doors with Miss Sarah reading to Handful and the two of them sharing secrets.  

Sarah confessed to Handful that her speech troubles began when she was four, after she'd witnessed a slave being whipped.  After sharing her secrets that couldn't be shared with anyone else, Sarah went on to explain the meaning of her silver button that she kept hidden.  "Do you know how an object can stand for something entirely different than its purpose?"  She (Handful) looked at me blankly..."You know my mother's cane, for instance--how it's meant to help her walk, but we all know what it stands for."

"Whacking heads." After a pause, she (Handful) added, "A triangle on a quilt stands for a blackbird wing."  .... "I have a thimble and it stands for pushing a needle and keeping my fingertip from turning sore, but I could let that stand for something else."  (p.59)   The two young girls are forever linked by their secrets and their intelligence.  Quilting is stitching that holds the story together as all three characters take wing in one form or another.  While reading this story and the power of story hidden in the seams of a quilt, I was reminded of a children's book I loved called Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.  It, too, is worth the time to read or perhaps reread.

Sarah's story begins to change directions after the death of her father,  when she writes,  "One Sunday when the air was crisp and razor-cut with light, I walked ankle-deep in fallen leaves all the way to Arch Street, where I came upon a Quaker meetinghouse of such size I paused to stare..."  (p.192)  As much as the characters and their separate journeys drew me into their lives, so too did the writing style of Sue Monk Kidd.  After years of a haunting relationship with a Quaker man Sarah writes, "I thought, oh Israel, and a tiny grief came over me.  Every time it happened, it was like coming upon an empty room I didn't know was there, and stepping in, I would be pierced by it, by the ghost of the one who'd once filled it up.  I didn't stumble into this place much anymore, but when I did, it hallowed out little pieces of my chest." (p. 339)  

*In the author's note I once again took flight and discovered a woman and her artwork, Judy Chicago.
From this artwork and gallery showing Sue Monk Kidd learned of many other unknown women who had made important contributions to history.  "Sarah and her sister Angelina were arguably the most famous, as well as the most infamous, women in America in 1830's, yet they seemed only marginally known, even in the city of their origins.  My ignorance of them felt like both a personal failing and a confirmation of (Judy) Chicago's view that women's achievements had been repeatedly erased through history." (p. 361, 362)


  1. I, too, liked Invention of Wings. Two others I have read that I really liked were Invisible Bridges byJulie Orringer--takes place in Hungary and nearby areas just before and throughout WWII. Very powerful book--very long, nearly 600 pages!
    The second one was Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard about the assassination of Pres. McKinley. Learned lots of things Ididn't know about that time.

  2. I like her books, too. I have quite a few books to read and I don't read as fast as I used to so I have a backlog! Shouldn't get bored!