Monday, June 16, 2014

The Invention of Wings

This is one of the best books of 2014--if I had finished it before posting last week's Top Ten Tuesday, I definitely would've put this book on the list, but I was almost finished and so didn't include it.

This is another Quaker/Abolition/Slavery/Quilt-themed books (I thought about Tracy Chevalier's The Last Runaway several times whilst listening to it), but absolutely superb and worth reading.

For starters, the two Quaker-Abolitionists, Sarah and Angelina (aka Nina) Grimke were real people.  Author Sue Monk Kidd provides a really interesting afterword in which she talks about discovering these fellow South Carolinians and felt compelled to not only tell their story but to imagine the world that shaped them and to imagine the slaves they grew up with whose plight marked them so deeply that they rejected family, home, and social class in order to become the first women abolitionists who lectured to both men and women in the 1830s.

This is another double narrative story--this seems to be quite the vogue these days--but it works perfectly as Kidd explores the parallel worlds of slave owners and slaves and how they converge and how they remain forever separate.  The narrators are Sarah Grimke and Handful (aka Hettie), the slave girl she was given at age 11.  

In the course of her story, Kidd explores family relationships, particularly between mothers and daughters and sisters.  Sarah and her own mother, Mary, have a difficult time of it--usually at cross purposes, but Mary defends Sarah at key points in her life, which surprises her to no end.  As a contrast, Handful's mother, Charlotte, is her guiding light, her beacon, her source of strength, and her role model.  Where Sarah rejects her mother, Handful seeks to fulfill her mother's unquenchable desire to be free.  

Likewise, Sarah and Nina are as close as any two sisters can be, despite twelve years difference in age.  Sarah was Nina's godmother and brought her up in her own image.  For many years, Sarah and Nina's relationship is more like Charlotte's and Handful's than it is like Sarah's or Nina's to their mother.  And then, just to make the math work, Handful has a sister of her own, Sky, who is also much younger than her, and who she mothers in a pattern similar to the way Sarah mothers Nina.

There are so many aspects of the novel that I enjoyed immensely, and in particular, the quilting that Charlotte and Handful do.  Charlotte makes a quilt in which each block tells a part of her life story, and the quilt frame that hangs above their bed plays a key role in the story. Kidd said that she was inspired to create this part of the story by the Bible quilts made by Harriet Powers

Harriet Powers Story Quilt

I also really liked the symbolism that first Sarah and then Handful imbued into a large silver button--it represented for each of them the yearning to be free to follow their hearts, to live their lives to the fullest, to explore and taste the full panoply of living.  

Finally, I thought Kidd did a wonderful job with the notion of speech, speaking out, being muzzled, giving voice to the need to invent the wings with which to soar.

A truly marvelous, satisfying book that inspires me to read more about the Grimke sisters and fervently hope that this book becomes a mini-series...I don't think a two-hour movie could do it justice. 


  1. You have convinced me! This will be my next audiobook...just as soon as I finish Five Days at Memorial.

  2. Enjoyable and insightful commentary.

    Abolitionists are of course interesting as we relate to them and wonder why everyone did not see it their way.The quilting and sounds like it adds something distinctive to the story.

    I must admit that I never realized that there were many Quaker/Abolition/Slavery/Quilt-themed books:)

  3. I'm sold: the time period, the Grimke sisters, quilting...what could be better? Awesome review! I know what I'm going to read next. :)

  4. I just looked up the Grimke sisters ( and Angelina reminds me uncannily of Dame Eileen Atkins (! Nice review!

  5. This is also one of my favorite books of the year as well. It also reminded me of The Last Runaway. It was our book club book for May, and was a great book for discussion. I think of one of my favorite parts was that it ended and I read the afterward and realized the Grimke sisters were real. What fascinating ladies!