Tuesday, February 25, 2014
'The Invention of Wings': The story of sisters, mothers and freedom
I admit it.
I like Oprah.
I didn't know that was such an odd thing until I started reading Oprah's latest Oprah 2.0 book selection 'The Invention of Wings' by Sue Monk Kidd, but apparently over the years of her television metamorphosis from queen of talk to queen of everything she garnered some vehement critics. My very wonderful, yoga friend Sarah loves to read, but after I told her I was reading Oprah's latest book selection, her face scrunched tight and she said, "I purposely try to avoid anything she reads or suggests. Oprah bugs me."
I guess I missed that chapter in pop culture. I do know that when I moved back to the United States after living in London for a year, I cried the first time I watched Oprah. I missed her show that much. I can't say I am still a devotee or that I've paid much attention to what's she's been up to since her talk show ended years ago, but I am not adverse to her reading material even if the bulk of it tends to be a bit depressing.
I can see why Oprah selected Sue Monk Kidd's third novel which follows the dual narrative of Sarah Grimke and her handmaid, Handful (a.k.a. Hetty). The story opens in the early 1800s on Sarah's eleventh birthday when her mother surprises her with her very own slave (Handful, age 10) as her main gift. Sarah who already shows tendencies of going against the grain of the southern way of life refuses to except a person as a gift even if her present has a nice blue bow tied around her neck.
The beginning of the story captured me as it intertwined the lives of two worlds - the world of the privileged white plantation owner's disobedient and headstrong daughter and the world of the oppressed and abused slaves who lived to escape punishment and retribution from their owners. Handful and Sarah's friendship grows and Sarah even teaches Handful to read, even though to do so is against the law. Sarah suffers her own abuse from her family in the form of a stifling of her spiritedness. She developed a stammer when she was only four years old after seeing one of their slaves whipped, but she also develops something even more dangerous and horrible - an incurable desire to be a lawyer which was unheard of for women in the early 1800s. Even worse still, she has compassion for her handmaid and treats her as equal as she can.
The narrative also shares Handful's devotion to her deviant, seamstress mother, Charlotte who refuses to be enslaved even though she is a slave. She tells Handful that their owners may have their bodies, but they can never enslave their minds. Charlotte plays a sharp contrast to Sarah's mother who the slaves call Missus, a sharp speaking, angry, merciless woman who believes in punishment and tradition.
The story spans decades and follows Sarah's growth into one of the most notorious abolitionists and pioneers of the women's rights. As Sarah moves North, Handful's life becomes tangled in proposed slave revolts, a bout at the deplorable work house (which is where slaves were punished severely for disobedience), and a longing for her mother who disappears one day.
I loved parts of this book, and other parts felt a bit thin and underdeveloped. I appreciated the entire story and it's significance after reading the Author's Note and discovering that Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina were indeed real women who rallied for anti-slavery much to the dismay of men and especially Southerners. They were ahead of their time for the suffragist movement, but they influenced other great women who fought for the cause. Sue Monk Kidd wove together pieces of history and developed the storyline of Handful based on a document that showed the Sarah did indeed receive a handmaid as a gift for her mother, but records indicated the handmaid died of an illness in her teenage years.
By bringing history to life and giving Handful the wings she needed to expand the storyline of hope and freedom, Kidd shows the same writing prowess she displayed in 'The Secret Life of Bees.' 'The Invention of Wings' isn't merely about coming of age as 'The Secret Life of Bees,' but it shows how an entire country gained the courage to rally for human rights of all because of the courage of a few brave souls who knew change was needed even if it wasn't the popular thing to do. These revolutionaries stood up for those who were unable to stand up for themselves, and the entire country benefited from the bravery of people like the Grimke sisters.
This book is another important reminder of our past as a country. We have come so far, but we still have work to do for equality. As much as Oprah might bug some people, I am glad she continually challenges society to take a step back, contemplate our history and consider where are we now. As Sue Monk Kidd says in her Author’s Note at the end of the book, “History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.” That’s why we read these sad stories that Oprah picks and why she continually chooses them for her audiences.