Friday, February 7, 2014

The Invention of Wings

I apologize for the week long gap since my last post but work has been crazy busy and the assembly line-like snow storms of the past week haven’t helped. I had gotten into a wonderful groove where I would draft my posts at night, then the next day I'd type them during my lunch hour and lastly stay a little late at work to polish them up before posting, but lately any and all daylight hours have been taken up with real work. As for the snow, I must say that despite their overall inconvenience, the storms and the resulting days off from work were a wonderful break from the hectic pace of the past couple weeks. They were a forced opportunity to decompress by reading (The Invention of Wings, which I finished during Monday’s storm) or enjoying a great movie (Dallas Buyers Club, which I watched on the eve of Wednesday’s storm; review post to come).

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is the third novel from the best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. Influenced by her own Southern roots, this latest novel is a fictional story inspired by the inspiring historical figure, Sarah Grimk√©, an abolitionist, writer and women’s rights activist of the 19th century. Born into one of Charleston’s elite families; her father a judge on South Carolina’s highest court and mother descended from the first families of Charleston, Sarah was “the one mother called different and father called remarkable, the one with carroty hair and freckles.” The middle child of ten siblings, Sarah had the temperament of a tortoise but she’d devised a slogan for herself as inspiration, “if you must err, do so on the side of audacity.”

It was November 1803 and Sarah’s eleventh birthday when her mother promoted her from the nursery to her own room in the grand three story house they called home and later at a birthday party gifted her with ten year old Hetty (Handful) as her very own waiting maid. Despite her young age Sarah had a firm understanding of the evils of slavery having witnessed at the age of four a brutal slave whipping which scarred her emotionally and worsened a speech impediment. To her mother’s horror and embarrassment, Sarah refuses the gift in front of the society ladies invited as birthday guests.

Her mother was a hard woman; “her name was Mary, and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord” for she wielded her cane like a weapon against her slaves. The general knowledge amongst even the youngest slaves, including Hetty, was that according to missus a “slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost – don’t see it, don’t hear it, but it’s always hovering around on ready.” As Sarah pleaded with her mother to give Hetty back, she thought “give Hetty back. As if she was mine after all. As if owning people was as natural as breathing.” Sarah was burdened by the realization that she owned a slave and couldn’t free her; Hetty, a child puny in the extreme who was ten but looked six and for whom “the only thing of any size about her was her eyes, which were colored a strange shade of gold.”

Ten year old Handful (the basket name given to her by her mother, since the master and missus got to pick a slave’s formal name), knew life would never be the same from that point forward. Handful’s mauma, Charlotte – the plantation’s seamstress, explained that she now had to meet all of Sarah’s needs and going forward she’d have to sleep on a pallet on the floor in the hall outside the door of Sarah’s room in case she was needed at a late hour. No longer could she rely on the warmth of her mother through the night as when they would snuggle together in the small room over the carriage house; where despite the smell of manure that made it seem like their bed was stuffed with it instead of straw it still proved to be a perfect sanctuary after a long day; where they worked on their beloved quilts and her mother shared stories of her granny-mauma and how there was a time in Africa that people could fly. “You don’t believe me? Mauma would say to her, “where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?” patting the skinny bones that stuck out from her back like nubs she’d add, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.”

Sarah longed to know things and become someone; dreams outside the realm of possibility given that a female’s education was limited to needlework, manners, penmanship, piano and the like. Yet she didn’t give up hope, after all a tiny acorn becomes an oak. Left with no recourse but to keep Handful, the two forge an unlikely friendship and though Sarah can’t free her physically she tries to free her mind and broaden her world by teaching her to read despite laws prohibiting it. The years pass and the two unlikeliest of allies and friends navigate through the choppy waters of their respective lives from childhood to adulthood, from Charleston to Philadelphia; we journey with them through Sarah’s heartache at a broken engagement, the death of her father, the disillusionment of unfulfilled dreams and her hesitant steps towards self-discovery; and we suffer with Handful through her mother’s mysterious disappearance, her longing for her and determined attempts to dig for the truth and her own personal agonies as a Work House punishment leaves her crippled; and as we share in their pain, struggles and victories we root for each to find their wings.

I so loved this book! It is a gripping, poignant and awe-inspiring tale that highlights the strength of the human spirit. Alternating chapters between these two richly written and complex women, Sarah and Handful, we are lucky enough to witness as each finds their purpose and voice, with Sarah’s metamorphosis slower and more hesitant, while Handful’s strength, like steel forged in the fire, comes from the pain, loss and hardship she resolutely endures. Each woman is fighting for freedom for as Handful wisely tells Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.”

While Handful’s imprisonment is of a different magnitude and the more gut-wrenching in the tale, the facts of Sarah’s struggles are no less compelling since women of that time were slaves of a sort as well – slaves to society’s rules; with no rights, no access to education, unable to own property and totally dependent on a man. Each shows courage in the face of adversity, and the fact that one’s pain was on a higher scale didn’t diminish the other’s trials and tribulations for while Sarah wasn’t whipped or left crippled, her plight was still evocative as she is forced to leave her home, religion and family in her tireless and self-sacrificing crusade to find justice for others through the emancipation of slaves and later fighting for women’s rights.

Sue Monk Kidd has perfectly, as she said “grafted fiction onto truth” in this riveting and creative story which seamlessly weaves historical figures and events with an imaginary tale that offers a possible what might have been scenario. She has taken gems from the countless sources used in her research, including Sarah’s diaries, letters, speeches, writings and newspaper articles, to offer us Sarah’s voice (or at least her version of it) and to posit the doubts, fears and self-reflection the real Sarah might have endured whilst also giving us priceless insight into the horrors of slavery through the make-believe friendship with the fictional character of Handful for though the real Sarah Grimk√© received a slave named Hetty as her maid which she did befriend, the real Hetty died of an illness a short while later.

As I said the novel poignantly informs us as to the cruelty of the times. The moral blindness that made the atrocities inflicted on other human begins acceptable, such as the one-legged punishment (which I’d never heard about) seen as the more humane option instead of whipping that entailed winding a leather tie around a slave’s ankle, then pulling the foot up behind him and hitching the tie around his neck so that if he lets his/her ankle drop, the tie chokes his/her throat. As much as the physical suffering endured was tragic and heartbreaking, just as striking is the knowledge that living and breathing human beings with hopes and dreams had no more value than chattel to their owners; no more than the cow in the barn or a piece of furniture, as depicted in the novel when a will listing assets itemizes each slave and their dollar value.

The Invention of Wings is an amazing book which speaks to the indomitable power of hope and how one person’s courage can change the world; a beautiful and powerful novel that will make your spirit soar.