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Book review and contest: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

Bookclub-in-a-Box is excited to be giving away a copy of The Invention of Wings to one reader! To enter the contest, just email laura [at] bookclubinabox.com with your name and mailing address by March 4. (Canadian residents only.)

Reviewed by Laura Godfrey

After the success of her first two novels, The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, Southern America-born author Sue Monk Kidd has written another novel that seems destined to have a lasting impact on readers. The Invention of Wings is based on Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two real-life sisters from the early 19th century—they were the first female abolition agents, fighting for racial equality, and among the earliest major American feminist thinkers. The author has taken details from the documented lives of these women, and woven in some details of her own to create an inspiring story full of rich characters.

The Invention of Wings begins with young Sarah Grimké, an intelligent, redheaded girl from a wealthy, slave-owning family in Charleston, South Carolina. For her 11th birthday, Sarah’s mother gives her a gift: ownership of Hetty “Handful,” a 10-year-old slave who is intended to be Sarah’s handmaid. But even at that age, Sarah is strong in her conviction about the evils of slavery, and tries to refuse this unwanted gift.

When her mother flat-out refuses to acknowledge her protestations, Sarah feels the very least she can offer to Handful is kindness, and the beginnings of an uneven but meaningful lifelong friendship take shape. After she unintentionally makes a promise to Handful’s mother, Charlotte (another Grimké slave), that she will someday find a way to give Handful her freedom, Sarah finds herself consumed with guilt, wondering how such a thing might ever be achieved.

Sue Monk Kidd

The book’s chapters alternate back and forth, offering the perspectives of both Sarah and Handful, allowing the reader to experience both sides: that of a strong and well-meaning but privileged white girl (and woman, as the story moves them into adulthood), and the life of a black slave living at the Grimké household with her mother, scheming for a way to freedom that seems all but impossible.

As Sarah grows older, she also becomes bolder in expressing her beliefs. Despite her family’s refusal to acknowledge her wish for a vocation—she originally wishes to follow her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer—she reads as many books as she can find. As time goes on, Sarah is frustrated to find that sometimes, even the people who are supposed to be fighting for the same cause try to shut her down in different ways. But Sarah’s self-made slogan has always been “If you must err, do so on the side of audacity,” and she continues to live by that code. Only her younger sister Angelina (or Nina) shares her conviction, unflinchingly fighting to effect change despite an uproar from much of their community.

The Invention of Wings is a historical novel that brings out the humanity of some of the people who were involved in the early struggles to abolish slavery and allow women equal rights. In the beginning, Sarah develops a speech impediment brought on after she witnesses a slave being whipped right in front of her. By the novel’s end, she has rediscovered her voice in many new ways. It’s certainly a page-turner, but one that will inspire readers to dig deeper into the historical background described in the final author’s note.

(Viking / 384 pgs. / January 2014 / CDN$32.95 in hardcover)

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