Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Invention of Wings

I recently finished Sue Monk Kidd's book, The Invention of Wings. It was horrible and fascinating, and I could scarcely put it down. The story spans the years 1803 - 1838, beginning in a Charleston home, with its well-to-do family and their slaves. The two central characters are Hetty Handful Grimké and Sarah Grimké.

These protagonists are introduced to us along with harsh realities. Ten-year-old Hetty enumerates Missus's "list of slave sins, which we knew by heart. Number one: stealing. Number two: disobedience. Number three: laziness. Number four: noise. A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost - don't see it, don't hear it, but it's always hovering round on ready."

Eleven-year-old Sarah recounts her earliest memory: watching a slave being whipped. And now, on her eleventh birthday, she is given Hetty, to be her "very own waiting maid."

From there, the narration alternates between the perspective of the two girls (women, by the book's end). Sarah opposes the slavery that is a staple of her society, and imagines she will become a lawyer, like her father. She struggles to find her voice in a world that doesn't recognize the value of either blacks or women. Hetty struggles with her own rebellions. She wrote "mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape, and once you find that, you got trouble breathing on your neck."

Somehow, I didn't recognize that this work was based on real characters, and real history. The name Grimké was familiar to me, and I eventually realized that I'd learned of the Grimkés on the PBS show The Abolitionists, along with William Lloyd Garrison, who also figures in Kidd's book. Denmark Vesey, Lucretia Mott, Theodore Weld are among other real persons who appear in these pages.

The cruel and cold treatment of the slaves was appalling, and perhaps the hardest part of reading this narrative. It is hard for me to fathom that such behavior was ever condoned.

The writing sometimes seemed stilted to me, but I attributed this to an effort to remain true to the language and style appropriate for the time period. Aside from that, I can recommend this book without reservation.

In an author's note to the book, Kidd explains that she stumbled across the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimké while viewing The Dinner Party, a work of art by Judy Chicago. This would be something to see. It is housed at the Brooklyn Museum, whose website explains:
The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago is an icon of feminist art, which represents 1,038 women in history—39 women are represented by place settings and another 999 names are inscribed in the Heritage Floor on which the table rests. This monumental work of art is comprised of a triangular table divided by three wings, each 48 feet long.
The information at the Brooklyn Museum's site is pretty comprehensive; I think I could spend a good while sifting through the names and stories represented there.

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