Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Handful of History

Charleston, in the early 1800s, was not a great place to live if you were a slave, or a slave owner's daughter with a conscience.  The story of The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, begins with said slave owner's daughter, Sarah, being given the gift of her very own slave, Hetty, for her 11th birthday.  Sarah immediately objects, but a slave is not the type of item that is easy to return.  Hetty was born to Sarah's family's household, and was named "Handful" by her mother, Charlotte, who is also a slave working for the family.

Sarah and Handful have a relationship that is different from Sarah's parents' relationships with their slaves.  While not treating Handful as an equal, Sarah is able to see her as a person.  In an instant that she knows she will come to regret, Sarah promises Charlotte that she will do whatever she can to help Handful become free.

In the beginning, the conditions for slaves in Sarah's family were not the worst imaginable, although the occasional misbehaving slave was whipped, and Handful was never allowed to meet her father because Charlotte was separated from him.  Sarah's father is a respected judge, and he seems sympathetic to Sarah's misgivings about slave ownership.  However, as the story continues, Sarah's family's fortunes take a turn for the worse, and life for the slaves becomes more brutal.

In protest of slavery, Sarah moves north and becomes a Quaker.  The Quakers were opposed to slavery.  At first this protest seems a little lame, as Sarah is not actually doing anything to end slavery or improve Handful's situation.  Soon, Sarah's sister, Nina, moves to Philadelphia to be with her, and together the two find their voices and fight for their cause.

While my summary might sound heavy, The Invention of Wings is a page turner.  Normally I read before I go to bed to relax myself, but this book got my adrenaline pumping and made it hard to sleep.  Anyone who liked The Help by Kathryn Stockett will like this book too.  However, where The Help was famously said to be purely fiction (Stockett was sued by her brother's maid who claimed she was the basis of the book), Wings is based on fact. 

Only because I have been helping my son study for this U.S. History exams this year, some of the characters' names were recognizable to me.  Charlotte has a child with Denmark Vesey, a man who was accused of trying to start a slave revolt.  Sarah lives for a time with Lucretia Mott, a famous abolitionist.  Sarah and Nina work with Theodore Weld, who also fought against slavery.  And I haven't told you Sarah and Nina's last name.  It's Grimke.  Sarah and Angelina Grimke were said to be the most famous and infamous women of the 1830s, fighting for equality for slaves and for women. 

The Invention of Wings is sure to be one of the best sellers of 2014.  It is an Oprah Book Club book, and I am reading it for my book group as well.  I was asked to review it in December, but foolishly, I passed.  Nevertheless, Annie Harris from Viking Penguin would never let me down, and she sent me this link to a book group kit that includes discussion points, and even a few recipes.  She also wanted me to remind you that Sue Monk Kidd will be discussing Wings with Oprah on April 13 at 11:00 am, on OWN.

Next Up:  Who's the Slow Learner:  A Chronicle of Inclusion and Exclusion by Sandra Assimotos McElwee

Still Listening to:  The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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