March 6, 2016
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
I am sort of dreading this review because nothing I am capable of writing is worthy of this book. The back flap describes it as “exquisitely written,” and it is that and so much more. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since finishing it last week, and I’ve been walking around asking people if they’ve read it, desperate to gush.
(Note to self: when Sue Monk Kidd, who also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, a book I’ve universally recommended to people for 13 years now, publishes a book, it goes automatically to the top of the queue; no more waiting two years out when active discussion has died down.)
In the Invention of Wings, on her 11th birthday, Sarah Grimke, the daughter of early-nineteenth-century Charleston aristocrats, is given ownership of 10 year old Hetty, “Handful,” the slave daughter of the Grimke’s seamstress. The book is narrated alternately between Handful, who suffers the hardship and sorrow of slavery, and Sarah, who is internally tortured by both the abomination of slavery and the oppression of women. Over 35 years, the lives of Sarah and Handful are intertwined in a rich, complex story of love and friendship, guilt and defiance, fortitude and despair, and the escalating stakes of injustice and discrimination.
The book is not only exquisite, it is excruciating. A certain sick, terrified darkness comes over me whenever I read anything about slavery, as it should. I can’t stop from hurrying past scenes of abuse or torture, or skipping them altogether, but I will never be able to un-see the “one legged punishment” once doled out to Handful’s mother, Charlotte, in which a belt was tied between her bent leg and her neck, choking her if she straightened her leg. Nor was the more “subtle” suffering throughout the book any easier to bear. All I can say is that in the hands of Sue Monk Kidd, it is somehow worth it.
Though I can’t believe it took me two years to pull The Invention of Wings off the shelf, the timing of books is an ever-funny thing. The presidential campaign is in full, painful throttle, and Donald Trump is all over the place spewing his narcissistic, hateful lunacy, and people are supporting him. I have largely kept to my policy of not discussing politics outside a small circle of like-minded friends while becoming increasingly astounded. What the ever mother FUCK is going on?!
After reading The Invention of Wings, I’m done being silent. This is not just politics, and it’s not just the embarrassing circus show it looks like. It’s racism and misogyny, which everyone pretty much knows by now, I would think. It’s the insidious moral rationalization of injustice and discrimination. “We take good care of our slaves.” “The fairer sex need not worry themselves with such matters as education or voting.” Enough people stayed silent.
“I’ll Make America Great Again…” Oh, hell no.
Sarah Grimke did not stay silent. As a child she was so traumatized watching a slave be whipped, she developed a stutter that stayed with her intermittently her entire life. When her father banished her from books, she was nearly catatonic for weeks. Still, she found a way to speak for abolition, to fight for the equality of the sexes. In doing so, she faced ostracism, threats, and loneliness, and risked arrest and punishment. This is not fiction; these are the historical facts around which Sue Monk Kidd weaved her breathtaking story.
I am an educated, voting woman with access to birth control and the right to have an abortion, and I have black friends and colleagues. I risk essentially nothing by speaking out against Trump, other than pissing off ignorant people who have somehow become convinced that this obnoxious, bullying egomaniac “will get this country turned around all right!”
Am I going to change their minds about anything? No, no more than they will ever change mine. But I am not going to thank Sarah Grimke or disrespect myself or my children by staying silent about a white male who aligns himself with the KKK (the KKK for fuck’s sake, people! The three lettered cousin of a swastika!) and refers to women as everything from “pigs” and “bimbos,” to “disgusting” for pumping breast milk, to a political opponent being “unable to satisfy as a leader when she couldn’t even satisfy her husband.”
No, I am going to speak my fair self hoarse all the way to the voting booth, where my last presidential vote for a black man will be followed by a vote for a Jewish one or a woman. I should have been speaking my truth all along, but The Invention of Wings is my wake up call. This is what great books can do.