Book Club – Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

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Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimkes’ daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Sue Monk Kidd’s sweeping new novel, Invention of Wings,  is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday in 1803, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful, who is to be her waiting maid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

Laura: I cheated and jumped to the end, because of the meeting tonight. Here is my un-profound comment – love historical novels, particularly those that point out the gap in women’s voices in our nations history. An example being that Monk Kiddlived in Charleston and didn’t know about these two women and the role they played. I am currently reading a lot of the genre  about pioneer women, and I am wondering how much more is out there that we didn’t hear about or it wasn’t collected, or safe to document. I read a book They  Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, which is about  migration across the country, and includes diaries, very few of which were ever published about this migration. Women tell stories differently than men – there is more about what it meant in their lives, having babies, leaving babies who died behind in unmarked burial sites, relationships. I like to hear about resilience, courage , cruelty, not always hope, resilience out of spite  Back to Invention of Wings, I liked her voice. I didn’t’ like Secret Life of Bees that well. Liked this better. Rate: 4.2

Paula : I really enjoyed it. I still have the last episode to read, not completely finished. What struck me the most, these women, no matter what their status was, Handful, Sarah, Nina, their struggles were so similar – determination to have independent thought and a  life that was meaningful to them individually. Intriguing that one was slave, one slave owner. Something happens when I read  historical fiction – it reconfirms me, because I am so glad I was not a woman living in that time frame, in that location. I would have hated it. Rate it 4.75

The cruelty is so horrible. We know it exists in some parts of the world, fortunately our lives are comfortable.

Gloria : This wasn’t a new story, no new insites into women’s rights or slavery. Her commentary was more interesting than the book. I would have preferred more insite into quakerism, rights of men and women, It’s not something I would recommend to a lot of people. When Roots came out it was shocking, anything after, was well, After Roots. It is not that I don’t have empathy, but I am commenting on the writing. Rate 2.0

Lynne: I did not realize until I was done reading it, the true historical aspects. I might have felt differently if I had known. The story did not suspend my disbelieve, too black and white (pardon the pun), the dialogue too staged, Evil and good was so obvious. By the end of the book when I found out there actually were these sisters, that made me think, did I miss something? When you grow up that way, it’s normal, so to step away from that, to do something about it, that’s wonderful, but the book just didn’t do it for me. Rate. 2.0

Connie: If I read the history of these women it would be compelling, but as a fiction, it kind of bugged me. I might of had a bad attitude going into it. Slavery and the holocost, those topics are hard for me to read. My feeling is you better not manipulate me into feeling with cheap shots. I was frustrated with Sarah, the main character, as being extremely unbelieveable, unsufferably self riteous, and uninteresting. I didt believe that an 11 year old who was raised in that setting could be that enlightened. Twain himself, it took him longer, wasn’t until he was adult. I didn’t believe the character motivation, it was so black and white. The mother so evil etc. I felt it ripped off what other writers have done, I saw scenes from other books, such as the stepping off the sidewalk scene. When a skilled writer writes, she will use symbolism, allegory, irony as a complex fitional technique for compression (reader discovers things for themselves). These techniques can say so much more than just telling the story. The author doesn’t have to hit me over the head with it, I want to know it’s bad from the writing techniques. I don’t want it to be overly sentimental, I want it to do what a good novel does – provide insight into the truth about life. Rate: 1.0

Robin: The book starts off with very strong separate voices, but towards the end Handful’s voice becomes more sophisticated and more similar to Sarah’s. Was this intentional? I didn’t like it because I was so impressed with the quality of Handful’s voice in the beginning. Even as she aged, learned to read, changed, I don’t think the quality of her grammar, voice, etc, would have changed so much. In the second half of the story I had to flip back to the beginning of the chapter to see who was narrating.

I felt like I had read this story before. I wanted there to be something unique, something other than the fight against slavery, women’s rights, relationship between a slave and an owner. When I reached the end and found out it was based on a true story, this explained some things. But as Sue Monk Kidd clearly states that she fictionalized things, I wondered why she did go a little further. I was actually quite shocked when I was at the end of the story, expecting more about the arrival in the North. But this is partly because I read it on my kindle and the end is at 88% if you have the Oprah’s Notes version, so I was shocked when the end came. (And I was STILL waiting for some punch). One more reason I prefer to read the actual physical book. Although it certainly is well written and a good story, because it didn’t surprise me and the writing wasn’t unique or exciting, I only rate it a 1.5

Kristina: I am about half way through, enjoying it very much. Nice short chapters, can’t believe how long it is to get through. My Rate so far is : 3.3

 

I have included a long list of discussion questions from Sue Monk Kidd’s website, although this group did not use them.

Discussion Questions

1. The title The Invention of Wings was one of the first inspirations that came to Sue Monk Kidd as she began the novel. Why is the title an apt one for Kidd’s novel? What are some of the ways that the author uses the imagery and symbolism of birds, wings, and flight?

2. What were the qualities in Handful that you most admired? As you read the novel, could you imagine yourself in her situation? How did Handful continue her relentless pursuit of self and freedom in the face of such a brutal system?

3. After laying aside her aspirations to become a lawyer, Sarah remarks that the Graveyard of Failed Hopes is “an all-female establishment.” What makes her say so? What was your experience of reading Kidd’s portrayal of women’s lives in the nineteenth century?
4. In what ways does Sarah struggle against the dictates of her family, society and religion? Can you relate to her need to break away from the life she had in order to create a new and unknown life? What sort of risk and courage does this call for?

5. The story of The Invention of Wings includes a number of physical objects that have a special significance for the characters: Sarah’s fleur de lis button, Charlotte’s story quilt, the rabbit-head cane that Handful receives from Goodis, and the spirit tree. Choose one or more of these objects and discuss their significance in the novel.

6. Were you aware of the role that Sarah and Angelina Grimke played in abolition and women’s rights? Have women’s achievements in history been lost or overlooked? What do you think it takes to be a reformer today?

7. How would you describe Sarah and Angelina’s unusual bond? Do you think either one of them could have accomplished what they did on their own? Have you known women who experienced this sort of relationship as sisters?

8. Some of the staunchest enemies of slavery believed the time had not yet come for women’s rights and pressured Sarah and Angelina to desist from the cause, fearing it would split the cause of abolition. How do you think the sisters should have responded to their demand? At the end of the novel, Sarah asks, “Is it ever right to sacrifice one’s truth for expedience?”

9. What are some of the examples of Handful’s wit and sense of irony, and how do they help her cope with the burdens of slavery?

10. Contrast Handful’s relationship with her mother with the relationship between Sarah and the elder Mary Grimké. How are the two younger women formed—and malformed—by their mothers?

11. Kidd portrays an array of male characters in the novel: Sarah’s father; Sarah’s brother Thomas; Theodore Weld; Denmark Vesey; Goodis Grimke, Israel Morris, Burke Williams. Some of them are men of their time, some are ahead of their time. Which of these male characters did you find most compelling? What positive and negative roles did they play in Sarah and Handful’s evolvement?

12. How has your understanding of slavery been changed by reading The Invention of Wings? What did you learn about it that you didn’t know before?

13. Sarah believed she could not have a vocation and a marriage, both. Do you think she made the right decision in turning down Israel’s proposal? How does her situation compare to Angelina’s marriage to Theodore? In what way are women today still asking the question of whether they can have it all?

14. How does the spirit tree function in Handful’s life? What do you think of the rituals and meanings surrounding it?

15. Had you heard of the Denmark Vesey slave plot before reading this novel? Were you aware of the extent that slaves resisted? Why do you think the myth of the happy, compliant slave endured? What were some of the more inventive or cunning ways that Charlotte, Handful and other characters rebelled and subverted the system?

16. The Invention of Wings takes the reader back to the roots of racism in America. How has slavery left its mark in American life? To what extent has the wound been healed? Do you think slavery has been a taboo topic in American life?

17. Are there ways in which Kidd’s novel can help us see our own lives differently? How is this story relevant for us today?

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