Sunday, March 02, 2014

382 (2014 #10). The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd,
narrated by Jenna Lamia and Adepero Oduye

Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is one of my favorite books, so when I heard she had a new one out, I had to read it - or in this case, listen to it.

Set in the early 1800s, this historical fiction has two alternating first-person narrators - the real Sarah Grimk√©, and a fictionalized family slave, Hetty "Handful" Grimk√©.  I had never heard of Sarah before reading this book, but she was, in her time, a famous - and infamous - abolitionist and early feminist, along with her younger sister Angelina.  Naturally, now I want to read more about them (and the rest of their fascinating family).

The story starts in Charleston, South Carolina, in November 1803, when Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy judge, is given an eleventh-birthday present: 10-year-old Handful as a personal maid.  Sarah, well-educated for a girl in that time period, is appalled, and tries to free her - but of course that is not allowed.  Apparently Sarah, when younger, witnessed a slave being whipped, and this led to her anti-slavery feelings as well as a persistent stutter that comes and goes.

In a lengthy author's note, Kidd said that she learned in her extensive research that Sarah did indeed receive a slave named Hetty.  Sarah did teach Hetty to read (for which they were both punished), and Sarah wrote that they were close.  However, the real Hetty died a short while later.  Kidd instead gives Hetty - Handful - a life and a story that includes her fiery fictional mother Charlotte, and connects with another real person, a free black man named Denmark Vesey, who led an unsuccessful slave revolt in Charleston.

While the next 35 years of Sarah's life in the book pretty much follow Sarah's real life (with discrepancies identified in the author's note), Kidd states that "the voice and inner life I've given Sarah are my own interpretation."  I found it ironic that Sarah and Angelina were even rejected by the Quakers, whom they joined as adults, for being too outspoken about the equality of blacks and women to white men.

Kidd was free to come up Handful's character completely, but Handful is also grounded in thorough research.  Handful's story, which in the book takes place entirely in Charleston, was a fascinating glimpse into the life of an urban slave in that time period in the South - and all the restrictions and harsh cruelty it often included.

Kidd makes Handful and Charlotte seamstresses, to work in a "story quilt," such as those made by the slave Harriet Powers.  The wings in the title are introduced early, in a reference to the American Black folktale "The People Could Fly" that Charlotte tells Handful about, reminding her that her shoulder blades are "all what left of your wings...noting but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get 'em back."  The imagery of the blackbirds in that folktale reappears in the quilts Handful and Charlotte make.  As the story progresses, Sarah and Handful both develop wings, in different ways.  I suppose this imagery is what makes me prefer the cover just above (from a paperback not available for sale here), rather than that of the audiobook and hardbound pictured at the beginning of this post.

I was glad I had to work yesterday so I could listen to the last disc of this awesome audiobook on my commute.  Jenna Lamia, who narrated The Secret Life of Bees and was Skeeter in The Help, is perfect as Southern-bred Sarah.  This may be the first audiobook for Nigerian-American actress Adepero Oduye, who voiced Handful, but I don't think it will be her last.  Kidd reads her own author's note at the end.

I can't recommend this book enough.  Looking forward to its release in paperback, so I can suggest it to my book club.

 © Amanda Pape - 2014

[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were both borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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