Taking Flight in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings: A Review

Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, captured my heart when I first read that novel.  She was both creative and ingenious to write a story that was incredibly metaphoric and touching about the life of a young girl as it relates to the life of a bee.  I read her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, but it did not “wow” me.  Most recently, however, I read her latest novel, The Invention of Wings.  After I finished reading the novel, I said to myself, “That was a great novel.” The story had an even greater effect on me than The Secret Life of Bees.  The Invention of Wings enthralled me from its first page.  It is a historical novel set during the first half of the nineteenth century in South Carolina.  Kidd, a South Carolina native, often sets her stories in South Carolina, and uses South Carolina from a historical perspective. South Carolina, unlike the other states in the union had the largest concentration of enslaved Africans, and Charleston was the port of entry for many Africans who became enslaved.  As a result, Charleston was among the wealthiest cities within the original thirteen colonies.  As many as forty percent of the enslaved arrived in Charleston where they were bartered.  Many continued to arrive in South Carolina because of the need for free labor to produce rice.  Africans from Sierra Leone were experienced with planting rice. Thus, their knowledge of planting rice inadvertently fostered the slave trade in South Carolina.  It is with this backdrop of enslaved Africans in Carolina, that Kidd begins her story.  Kidd’s historical novel is about both individual purpose and resolution, alternatingly told through the eyes of Sarah Grimke, the prominent promoter of women’s rights at that time in America and Hetty Handful Grimke, an enslaved woman on the Grimke plantation and Sarah’s personal maid.  The story is told with historical accuracy as it infuses authenticity into the story through historical figures and through historical events that transpired during the first half of the nineteenth century in America. Kidd uses superb metaphorical and lyrical language throughout the text that draws the reader to each page.  She builds the story through both internal and external conflict experienced by the characters that results in the reader rooting for the main characters.  The metaphoric language allows the reader to take the story of the enslaved family’s “invention of wings” folk tale to great height. Both Handful and Sarah both take flight at the end as if they had wings like an eagle enabling them to soar to great heights, accomplishing the unfathomable.  The novel ends with a stunning denouement that makes the reader say, “brava” to Sue Monk Kidd.

The Invention of Wings is historically based on specific events relating to the Grimke family, a prominent planter family in Charleston, South Carolina, during the nineteenth century.  The family was affluent and owned many enslaved Africans on their plantation.  The story is based on the lives of two women and how their lives intersect at different points in their development.  It is also about how these women impact the lives of others around them because of their steadfastness in pursuing their dreams.  This is a story about women’s rights, about abolition, about individual determination, about heartbreak, about love, and about not losing sight of one’s dreams and goals.  Both characters work through what seem to be insurmountable odds.  This story is set during a time in which South Carolinians were staunch slave traders and when women were prohibited from gaining stature through education.  Kidd weaves her story through the abolition movement with Denmark Vesey, with Lucretia Mott, with William Lloyd Garrison, and with the Quakers.  The story includes a foiled slave revolt organized by Vesey, an African American Episcopal Church leader; however, the rebellion was preempted by two enslaved individuals who conveyed the plot to their master. Vesey was later hanged along with several other slaves.  The novel details the inhumane treatment suffered.

Additionally, the novel reveals the individual grit that both Handful and Sarah maintained to work toward achieving freedom, abolition, and women’s rights.  Historically all of these aspirations were eventually achieved at great person cost to Grimke and to others like her.  Kidd elaborates on the difficulties that Sarah and her sister Angelina both faced and endured with the Quakers because the Quakers were not keen on combining the Abolition Movement with the Women’s Rights Movement. The two sisters quickly realized that abolition did not mean equal rights. Kidd incorporates the sentiment of the time that women were only meant to be homemakers, and that any other aspiration was denigrated. “Handful’s resolution to escape the shackles of slavery resulted in brutal treatment.  Some of the exact details of Handful’s life are fictionalized, although she did exist on the plantation and Sarah did teach her how to read and write.  Kidd in her comments at the end of the novel, details to the reader the fictionalized elements used to tell the story as well as the historical documents that she used. She unwaveringly tells us the triumphs and well as the both the obstacles and disappointments that the sisters as well as Handful experienced. It gives us a great picture of the events of that time as it lyrically transports us back toward another time and place. This is a great book for adolescents and for adults of all ages. This book is an excellent companion to James Mcbride’s The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel.

My Personal Connection to South Carolina

My maternal grandmother, Rosamae Hill, was born in South Carolina in 1911 and was a descendant of the enslaved Katy Dawkins. William Dawkins, the slave owner of the plantation in Union County, South Carolina where Katy Dawkins resided had children with three enslaved women: Katy, Millie, and Rosetta Dawkins. Katy Dawkins died in 1870 and William Dawkins died in 1872.  In William Dawkins’s will, he left the entire plantation, 750 acres of land, and all of the farming equipment to the other two women who remained on the plantation.  Dawkins’s white family contested the will.  He did not have a legal wife or any other children outside of these three enslaved women.  His family did not prevail, but the ‘wives” in essence won because their children were legal heirs to the property. (It is not known why Katy’s son, Randall, did not try to gain any of the property, but we know through my grandmother that the family was aware of the property.) As a result, many of the beneficiaries became college educated.  They became physicians, teachers, ministers, and attorneys.  Their descendants went on to achieve financial prosperity seven years after emancipation – a time in which it was difficult for most “Negroes.” It truly “reconstructed” their lives.  My branch of the family did not initially fare as well both educationally and financially.  It was about five generations later before the descendants of Katy Dawkins saw its first college graduate.  Having a level playing field makes a difference.  The plantation is still in the “family.” Currently, the descents of Millie and Rosetta Dawkins, have been meeting annually since 1926.  Next summer in July, the ninetieth reunion will take place on the plantation in Fishdam, South Carolina in Union County.  For the last six or seven years a few of the descendents from Katy Dawkins have joined the rest of the family in its annual meeting.  Thanks to my second cousin, Eleanora, a genealogist, the family history was unearthed and is being preserved.  Possibly in 2020, the reunion will take place in New York City.  Just maybe we can get the descendants of Katy Dawkins to fully participate.

3 thoughts on “Taking Flight in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings: A Review

  1. Your reviews have such depth and are so interesting! Your descriptions certainly help in deciding if a book will be of interest to me. I’m not really a historical novel lover, but this one sounds interesting.


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