Author: Sue Monk Kidd
Read: August 6, 2014
Rated: 4 out of 5
Sue Monk Kidd creates a fictional account of Sarah Grimke (white) and her slave Handful (black). This takes place over a thirty year period, ending in the 1830's. Through a back and forth perspective, Kidd shows an uneasy, but friendly relationship between the two. Sarah Grimke wanting to free Handful and Handful wanting to be free, but through the culture and laws of South Carolina, this cannot happen. The book traces Sarah and Angelica Grimke's flight to escape the South's slavery, and then becoming influential abolitionists and very early feminists.
I will say right off that I am not a fan of historical fiction. First, because a straight up account is usually just as good as the dramatized account. But even more so, the dramatized account leaves an impression in ones mind that reality has been described. This may be an accurate impression, or it may be one which the author would like to slant-all recorded history has bias, but dramatized history would seem to have additional distortions. One thing which I am impressed with that Kidd acknowledges this and gives her references. She acknowledges blending her sources and creating more of a composite of life around the Grimke sisters-so this is not to be taken as a biography of Sarah Grimke. The slave girl, Handful, is one of these composites. Kidd draws heavily, and accurately from a book published by Angelica Grimke's husband, Theodore Weld called American Slavery: As It Is. This was published in 1839 and describes slavery from an insiders point f view.
[Slavery is] our way of life. (36) This has an effect on a person. In our time we have stories where robots make things easier for us. But we lose our ability to work, to think, to function. It is the same with slavery. When your life style is to dominate, you become hard, pitiless. It grows on you. Sort of like power does to a politician.
Why hadn't I told her Hetty's freedom was impossible? That the most which I could offer her was kindness? (59). Kindness is good. But what obstacles are there in doing what is right for Sarah? For me? Where do I feel this kind of guilt? How do I get around these obstacles?
Cause I could [make trouble]. You do your rebellions any way you could. (69). When a person lacks freedom, they will find some way to show they are not subservient. This goes on to another point: there is a tendency in slavery to dehumanize the slave. They are there for my pleasure. The slavery expressed in the Bible's Old Testament was for a limited length of time and maintained the person as a human. The slavery of the South caused the whites to look at blacks as inferior and objects. This caused the slaves themselves to be immoral-breeding where they could, stealing to retaliate or survive.
But something which The Invention of Wings hints at is how slavery dehumanizes the slave owners as well. They invent ways to torture/punish slaves. Things which are totally barbaric, yet was practiced by cultured and refined ladies of the South. The book shows how evil some of the people got.
The style of alternating voices between Sarah Grimke and Handful at times was useful when it talked about the same incident. But at other times the rigidness of this structure got in the way as it seemed like one or the other had little to say. I think rather than just alternating the voice which could be an effective technique, maybe a better use would be of use when one of them had something to say, to use that person and continue using that voice until the other had meaningful contribution.
Kidd makes mention the disdain Southerners had about Presbyterianism. It should be noted that even back in the late 1700's through the mid-1800's, there were several groups of Presbyterians, so one statement does not cover them all. I attend a Presbyterian church which sometimes does a self-mocking by referring to themselves as the frozen chosen. There is a tendency for us to be pretty set in our ways and how we worship. I was surprised when looking over some sites while researching this statement that Presbyterianism was associated with a more rougher type of religion-revivalism. Consequently they brought in undesirables if you were part of the upper class in society-not that all Presbyterians were that way. Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were Presbyterians.
I was wondering if Presbyterians of the time were more abolitionist in nature because of the comments Kidd makes. The answer is somewhat yes, but the view of slavery seemed to be more consistent concerning location rather than theology. Before the war, some Presbyterian churches even owned slaves and would rent them out to help pay expenses. According to Wikipedia, in 1861, the United Presbyterian Church of America split along North-South lines with the South becoming Presbyterian Church of the United States after the Civil War. Some more information can be found at the following sites:
What led to the torture of slavery. Something Kidd obtained from American Slavery was accurate descriptions of the ways slaves were coerced, tortured, and brought into submission. She talks about Charlotte, having stolen a bolt of silk forced to stand on one leg for an hour with a belt around her leg and neck. If she lets down her leg, she chokes. She is helpless to balance herself because her hands are tied behind her back. This was a real torment devised by a Southern woman to discipline her slave-there is no record that Mrs. Grimke used this method.
Or the treadmill as a means of punishing slaves. This is not our modern exercise or Medicean treadmill. It is a cylinder, maybe 10-12' high with steps. The slaves hands were tied above their head to a bar and then they needed to continue to walk up the steps. If they slowed Down, then they got whipped. Many slaves were either killed or crippled on this device. There was the added functionality that it ground grain and corn for the city.
Then there was the normal means of punishment where the slaves was whipped or beaten. I cannot think of how the South thought there was any morality connected with these punishments. But then how do you keep slaves in line if they turn rebellious? That, I think, is the crux of the problem with slavery-you need people willingly wanting to be slaves. Once you have people needing to be forced into slavery, then your forms of punishment grows deeper, as in the South.
What is slavery? Can you have a moral slavery? For the Christan, is slavery allowable? On the first question, the dictionary says: Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property-from Wikipedia.. I think slavery is when a person, through no fault of their own, lacks the freedom of self-determination. There is one place in the book which Handful says that she is constrained in her body, but her mind is free, while Sarah has freedom of doing what she wants, but her mind is bound by the customs, laws and ways of her people. Pete Seeger sang a German song, Die Gedanken sind frei which one of the lines in it says :
Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts freely flower
Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts give me power
No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them
I was surprised by this book. Normally I do not read historical fiction-if you are interested in why, you can read more in my blog. Having previously I had read American Slavery by Theodore Weld, I was interested in seeing how Kidd's book would compare. Kidd skillfully brings the contents of American Slavery into The Invention of Wings without making it seem like these were actual occurrences to their main characters.
Kidd writes her book based upon a curiosity of two of the Grimke sisters. They would grow into being abolitionists and probably the first US feminists. But do not mistake this for being a biography of them. This is a fictional account to bring the Grimke sisters forward to their proper place in our thinking. The Invention of Wings takes the basis of facts somewhat from what is known about the sisters, somewhat from how slavery functioned, somewhat a composite of whites, and some from the imagination of Kidd.
This combination makes the book a good diving board to understand more of the South during slave times, along with some of the effects we still see in our society now.
- Supercilious (229): behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others
- Desiccated (284): Desiccation is the state of extreme dryness, or the process of extreme drying.
- Thalassotherapy (284): the medical use of seawater as a form of therapy
- Laudanum (284): a tincture of opium containing approximately 10% powdered opium by weight (the equivalent of 1% morphine).
- Paregoric (284): camphorated tincture of opium, also known as tinctura opii camphorata, is a medication known for its antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic properties.
- Manumission (40): the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves
- Quevery (50): ????
- Crenulated (103): a fabric formed in metamorphic rocks such as phyllite, schist and some gneiss by two or more stress directions resulting in superimposed foliations.
- Cosseted (116): to pamper; coddle; pet
- Anomalous (164): deviating from or inconsistent with the common order, form, or rule; irregular; abnormal:
- au courant (211):Informed on current affairs; up-to-date.
- Cabriolet (220): A light two-wheeled carriage with a folding top pulled by a single horse.
- Cowrie (224): the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs in the family Cypraeidae, the cowries.
- Circumambulation (229): to walk or go about or around, especially ceremoniously.
- Supercilious (229): haughtily disdainful or contemptuous, as a person or a facial expression.
- Jonkonnu (318): a street parade with music, dance and costumes in many towns across The Bahamas
- Journal of John Woolman
- American Slavery: As it Is by Theodore Weld, Angelica Grimke, and Sarah Grimke
- Christian Women of the South By A.E. Grimke
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Letters on the Equality of the Sexes by Sarah Grimke
- Several other references are cited in the book's Author's Notes
- The Adventures of Telemachus
- The Sacres Biography of Jeanne d' Arc of France
- First Line: There was a time in Africa the people could fly.
- Last Line: We rode onto the shining water, onto the far distance.
- Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. (14)
- There is no pain on earth which does not desire a benevolent witness (165).
- I have one mind for the master to see. I have another mind which I know is me. (275)
- To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil. (310)
- she was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the peoples minds around her, not by the law. ... Be careful you can get enslaved twice, once by your body and once in your mind. Was some of this a quote from Denmark Versay?
- Part One: November 1803-February 1805
- Part Two: February 11-December 1812
- Part Three: October 1818-November 1820
- Part Four: September 1821-July 1822
- Part Five: November 1826-November 1829
- Part Six: July 1835-June 1838
Why did you want the group to read this book? Why did you read it in the first place?
Did you all read the book? Any of you attempt American Slavery As It Is?
Did you think Kidd presented a realistic view of slavery? How so?
Does the title of the book, The Invention of Wings, provide a good cover for this story? What images does it evoke for you?
Why hadn't I told her Hetty's freedom was impossible? That the most which I could offer her was kindness? (59). Sarah tried to educate Hettie-this is one of the few things we know about Sarah's slave. What obstacles prevent Sarah from doing what she thinks is right with Handful? How can we learn from how Sarah confronted these obstacles?
I used to make a glob with cornstarch and water. When left out, it was solid, but if squeezed, it would act like slime-think of a little food coloring to scare kids. Cause I could [make trouble]. You do your rebellions any way you could. (69) What is the effect of depriving a person of their freedom? Docile? Rebellion? What tools does one have to use to squelch rebellion? Does it matter on how rebellion or resistance is treated? Is torture the end result of slavery? Of a sense of superiority?
How is religion portrayed in this book? What affect did it have on Sarah? On Handful? In particular, why did Sarah chose a Presbyterian church? How was Presbyterian viewed? Why was the reaction for her that way? Handful and Denmark's church or the spirit tree?
[Slavery is] our way of life. One of things we have learned is that any thing will have an effect on us, on our culture. From this book, what effects did slavery have on the South? On white? On blacks? What did the whites see when they looked at a black? there is a tendency in slavery to dehumanize the slave. But something which The Invention of Wings hints at is how slavery dehumanizes the slave owners as well. They invent ways to torture/punish slaves. Things which are totally barbaric, yet was practiced by cultured and refined ladies of the South. The book shows how evil some of the people got. The opposite? Do we see any of those effects today? There is one place in the book which Handful says that she is constrained in her body, but her mind is free, while Sarah has freedom of doing what she wants, but her mind is bound by the customs, laws and ways of her people.
Pete Seeger sang a German song, Die Gedanken sind frei which one of the lines in it says :
Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts freely flower
Die Gedanken Sind Frei, my thoughts give me power
No scholar can map them, no hunter can trap them
Historical Fiction. This is one of the places which Sherri and I disagree. I am leery of reading historical fiction, mostly because it leaves too many unsubstantiated images behind. What kinds of images does this book leave in your mind? Do you think they are fair images what happened, or slanted through this book? As an example, the tea Party of Tennessee is trying to get a different take of slavery in their school's circculium.
1. The title The Invention of Wings was one of the first inspirations that came to Sue Monk Kidd as she began the novel. Why is the title an apt one for Kidd's novel? What are some of the ways that the author uses the imagery and symbolism of birds, wings, and flight?
2. What were the qualities in Handful that you most admired? As you read the novel, could you imagine yourself in her situation? How did Handful continue her relentless pursuit of self and freedom in the face of such a brutal system?
3. After laying aside her aspirations to become a lawyer, Sarah remarks that the Graveyard of Failed Hopes is "an all-female establishment." What makes her say so? What was your experience of reading Kidd's portrayal of women's lives in the nineteenth century?
4. In what ways does Sarah struggle against the dictates of her family, society, and religion? Can you relate to her need to break away from the life she had in order to create a new and unknown life? What sort of risk and courage does this call for?
5. The story of The Invention of Wings includes a number of physical objects that have a special significance for the characters: Sarah's fleur-de-lis button, Charlotte's story quilt, the rabbit-head cane that Handful receives from Goodis, and the spirit tree. Choose one or more of these objects and discuss their significance in the novel.
6. Were you aware of the role that Sarah and Angelina Grimke played in abolition and women's rights? Have women's achievements in history been lost or overlooked? What do you think it takes to be a reformer today?
7. How would you describe Sarah and Angelina's unusual bond? Do you think either one of them could have accomplished what they did on their own? Have you known women who experienced this sort of relationship as sisters?
8. Some of the staunchest enemies of slavery believed the time had not yet come for women's rights and pressured Sarah and Angelina to desist from the cause, fearing it would split the cause of abolition. How do you think the sisters should have responded to their demand? At the end of the novel, Sarah asks, "Was it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?"
9. What are some of the examples of Handful's wit and sense of irony, and how do they help her cope with the burdens of slavery?
10. Contrast Handful's relationship with her mother with the relationship between Sarah and the elder Mary Grimke. How are the two younger women formed-and malformed-by their mothers?
11. Kidd portrays an array of male characters in the novel: Sarah's father; Sarah's brother, Thomas; Theodore Weld; Denmark Vesey; Goodis Grimke, Israel Morris, Burke Williams. Some of them are men of their time, some are ahead of their time. Which of these male characters did you find most compelling? What positive and negative roles did they play in Sarah and Handful's evolvement?
12. How has your understanding of slavery been changed by reading The Invention of Wings? What did you learn about it that you didn't know before?
13. Sarah believed she could not have a vocation and marriage, both. Do you think she made the right decision in turning down Israel's proposal? How does her situation compare with Angelina's marriage to Theodore? In what ways are women today still asking the question of whether they can have it all?
14. How does the spirit tree function in Handful's life? What do you think of the rituals and meanings surrounding it?
15. Had you heard of the Denmark Vesey slave plot before reading this novel? Were you aware of the extent that slaves resisted? Why do you think the myth of the happy, compliant slave endured? What were some of the more inventive or cunning ways that Charlotte, Handful, and other characters rebelled and subverted the system?
16. The Invention of Wings takes the reader back to the roots of racism in America. How has slavery left its mark on American life? To what extent has the wound been healed? Do you think slavery has been a taboo topic in American life?
17. Are there ways in which Kidd's novel can help us see our own lives differently? How is this story relevant for us today?
These 17 questions are from the publishers questions
- Publisher's Web Site for Book
- NPR Review
- Lit Lovers, including Discussion Questions
- New York Times review
- The Guardian review
- Wikipedia-Grimke sisters
- Wikipedia-Sarah Grimke
- Wikipedia-Angelina Grimke
- Wikipedia-Theodore Weld
- Wikipedia-Denmark Vesery
- Wikipedia-Lucretia Mott