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April Book Club: The Invention of Wings

I admit – I judge a book by its cover. I know, all our parents and grandparents have advised us against this (and we are probably telling our children this same adage), but in this sense, I mean it literally. I look at a book and can usually tell if I want to read it just by the cover.

I say this because when I first saw the cover of “The Invention of Wings” by Susan Monk Kidd, I was not impressed.

It looked like a soothing nature scene or a self-help book, which is so not my thing. However, this book about two girls growing up in the South in the 1800s was highly recommended by our book club members and other avid readers. I’m so glad that Leah suggested this title for our club, because I ended up loving it! 

The story begins in Charleston in 1803. Sarah Grimkè, a daughter of a prominent lawyer and a pretentious mother, is given Hetty as a birthday present. Hetty, or “Handful,” as she is nicknamed and called throughout her life, is a slave born and raised to work on Sarah’s family’s plantation. Sarah tries to return Handful and to offer her freedom; slavery abhors her even at an early age. Regardless, she is forced to keep Handful as hers.

Despite their differences in society and in life, Sarah and Handful become friends of a sort. Sarah feels guilty about her privileges and tries in vain to offer Handful a taste of a life that quite simply was not attainable. For example, she teaches Handful to read, a crime that was punishable by law in this time, as a way to give her a little freedom in her life. Their friendship ebbs and flows with age, life, and circumstances. 

Both women experience oppression but in different forms. For Sarah, oppression is found in simply being female. She is denied the educational and social opportunities of her brothers and other men during this time. She dreams of being a lawyer but is told to stop speaking nonsense by her father. Sarah becomes a vocal abolitionist but must give up the dream of being a wife and mother for this role.  For Handful, she experiences oppression daily as a slave. She has little freedom, and what little she has can be taken away for the slightest infraction. Their differences also bring them together and keep them connected despite distance and time.

A fun tidbit to this story is that some of the characters were real people!  Sarah Grimkè was a female abolitionist. Together with her sister Angelina, they wrote many papers against slavery and gave speeches throughout the North. Such bravery from these women, especially in an age where women weren’t allowed to be outspoken! Thank you to Leah for the pictures below – she was able to tour the houses where the sisters lived in Charleston.

There is no happy ending to “The Invention of Wings,” although it ends with a glimpse of hope for Sarah and Handful. Our members really enjoyed reading this book and learning a little more (albeit with liberties) about the real lives of Sarah and her sister Angelina. We learned a little more about the lives of women during the 1800s and thanked our lucky stars that we live in this time. Finally, we witnessed a tenuous friendship that could flourish despite privilege and oppression. We hope you found the same joy in “The Invention of Wings” that we all did.

Lesson learned – do not judge the book by its cover!

Check back next month as we read “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan.

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