Thursday, 30 January 2014

#CBR6 3: The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

Pages: 384 hardcover (read ebook version)
Time to read: 4 hours. Barely put it down after I started reading it. This caused me to burn the first lot of toast I made.

Set in Charleston in the early 19th Century, The Invention of Wings tells the story of Handful and Sarah Grimké, slave and owner, and their separate but entwined lives. Sarah Grimké was one of the earliest Abolitionists and her story is based on what really happened to her; the character of Handful is mostly fictional, although Sarah was given a slave called Hetty (the name Handful is known to whites by) and she did try to refuse the gift on grounds of conscience, at the tender age of eleven. There are two first-person narratives intertwined through the novel, and the story covers a period of around 30 years.

This was a deeply compelling and well-crafted novel. The volume of research must have been enormous, but it has clearly paid off, as the book is redolent with details which ring true (albeit I don't know much about that period of history). Both characters are vividly drawn, and their relationship with its painful inequalities is really interesting to see develop. It's also great to see what each thinks about the other; in a way there is a silent third narrative voice, that of the objective truth the reder pieces together through the subjective viewpoints.

Given the very white-washed way we all seem to learn about history, a lot of the book makes for very uncomfortable reading. Slavery was not legal in Britain at the time the book was set, but the British had heavily profited from slavery for well over a century by that point. The ingrained attitude in the Southern states is something that I was aware of, but I was not aware of the arguments used and how much they fed on a (twisted, to my mind) Biblical precedent, although I could have probably figured it out if I'd ever thought to think about it.

It was also fascinating to see how closely entwined the philosophy of abolition and that of women's rights were entwined, not only in Sarah's personal journey but in the historical movements. I found this particularly striking because of the ongoing and vocal debate about the treatment of race in feminist thinking (or, to be more accurate, the lack thereof), and there's a particularly striking argument made by one of the (male) abolitionist leaders who tries to persuade the Grimké sisters not to argue for the rights of women at the same time as they are arguing for the rights of slaves and black people, because it's more complicated and drives people away from the abolitionist cause. This argument is still used against intersectional movements and thinking today, and I hope that more people learn to show it the same scorn that Sarah does.

I highly recommend this book. Be sure to read the afterword by the author; Kidd gives a very good accounting of her sources and thinking behind the novel which provides greater depth to the work.

No comments:

Post a Comment