Hero­ine the weak link in abo­li­tion­ist story

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Kathryne Card­well

THESE wings fly, but not al­ways high. Amer­i­can au­thor Sue Monk Kidd is best known for her 2002 his­tor­i­cal novel, The Se­cret Life of Bees, which was set in the U.S. South in the 1960s. In The In­ven­tion of Wings, her third novel, Kidd re­vis­its the South for in­spi­ra­tion. She recre­ates the life of Sarah Grimké, a mid19th-cen­tury woman born into a rich South Carolina slave­hold­ing fam­ily in Charleston who later be­came a fa­mous — some would say in­fa­mous — ac­tivist for abo­li­tion and women’s rights. Like the re­cent movie 12 Years a Slave, Monk suc­cess­fully por­trays the many ways in which slaves were de­graded and de­hu­man­ized by own­ers who de­luded them­selves into think­ing they had their prop­erty’s best in­ter­ests at heart. At one point, Sarah’s mother pun­ishes a slave by hav­ing her leg bent back­wards and tied to her neck with a belt for an hour, feel­ing it a pun­ish­ment less cruel than a whip­ping. Tied in with Sarah’s story is the tale of Hetty (Hand­ful) Grimké, a fam­ily-owned slave given as a birth­day gift to 11-year-old Sarah when Hand­ful her­self is only 10. (In an af­ter­word to the novel, Kidd notes that although the char­ac­ter of Hand­ful is fic­tional, Grimké fam­ily records note that Sarah ac­tu­ally did re­ceive a 10-year-old slave as a gift for her 11th birth­day.) When the hor­ri­fied Sarah, who de­scribes her­self as hav­ing “muti­nous ideas, rav­en­ous in­tel­lect and funny looks,” protests that she wants no part in own­ing a fel­low hu­man be­ing, her mother re­sponds, “I don’t know where you get these alien ideas. This is our way of life, dear one, make your peace with it.” Hand­ful and Sarah are drawn to­gether by a shared sense of in­jus­tice — Sarah de­spises the slave­hold­ing way of life and chafes at the lim­its set on her as a fe­male. Hand­ful hates be­ing a slave and longs for a world out­side of ser­vice to the Grimkés. De­spite the dif­fer­ences be­tween them, they form a solid, if prag­matic, friend­ship. As Hand­ful de­scribes it, “She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her.” Nei­ther Sarah nor Hand­ful can see a way of break­ing free of the rigid so­cial re­stric­tions set upon them. But af­ter Hand­ful’s crafty and re­bel­lious mother man­ages to make Sarah prom­ise to one day help Hand­fulf ob­tain her free­dom,d a chain of events is set in mo­tion that will shape the lives of both Sarah and Hand­ful for­ever. Kidd, who grew up in small-town Ge­or­gia, peo­ples her novel with sev­eral other real his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment. These in­clude Quaker min­is­ter Lu­cre­tia Mott, for­mer slave-turne­drebel Den­mark Ve­sey and Sarah Grimké’s sis­ter An­gelina. Her por­tray­als of these in­di­vid­u­als are both be­liev­able and com­pelling. Un­for­tu­nately, Kidd fal­ters in her por­trayal of Sarah. Though she ac­cu­rately chron­i­cles many of her ac­tual ac­com­plish­ments, the char­ac­ter comes across as rather clichéd and pre­dictable. In con­trast, read­ers will en­joy root­ing for Hand­ful, who is fiery, unique and per­cep­tive. At times, read­ers may be tempted to draw par­al­lels be­tween Wings and 2011’s best­selling novel The Help by Kathryn Stock­ett, which ex­plores the re­la­tion­ships be­tween priv­i­leged whites and black do­mes­tic ser­vants in the 1960s ru­ral Amer­i­can South. But while Wings is well-plot­ted and has an in­trigu­ing sto­ry­line, the novel doesn’t quite match the emo­tional com­plex­ity of The Help or Kidd’s pre­vi­ous nov­els.

Win­nipeg writer Kathryne Card­well works for the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

PAULA ILLING­WORTH / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILES

Kidd’s novel has an in­trigu­ing sto­ry­line, but doesn’t match up against her pre­vi­ous work.

The In­ven­tion of

Wings

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