The Invention of Wings

9780670024780_p0_v3_s260x420By imagining the lives of a wealthy nineteenth-century family in Charleston and their house slaves, Sue Monk Kidd creates a realistic historical fiction in The Invention of Wings.  Using letters and publications as her source and inspiration, Kidd focuses on a real Southern belle,  Sarah Grimké, who became a Quaker and a zealous abolitionist, predating Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe in her advocacy for women’s rights and abolition.  Sarah’s slave, named Hetty by her white master, but called Handful by her mother, balances the story’s point of view.  Both young women are intelligent, resourceful, and determined, with Sarah hoping to break the bonds of restrictive society rules that relegate her to a secondary existence, and Handful yearning to be free.

The narrative alternates between Sarah and Handful, as they grow from children to young women.  After receiving Handful as a birthday present when she is eleven years old, Sarah unsuccessfully tries to free her.  Promising Handful’s mother that one day she will set her free, Sarah defies her parents and the law by teaching Handful to read and write, and later helps her to escape.

Handful’s mother, Charlotte, a talented seamstress, initiates small rebellions and, when punished, adroitly manages to create havoc for her mistress.  Charlotte’s actions become the catalyst for later resistance, and her quilts – modeled on the African appliqued quilts of Georgian slave Harriet Powers – reflect the history and voice of a now revered tradition.  Quilters will connect with the peace through industry that Charlotte has with the needle in her hand, and recognize familiar pieces in the construction.

Kidd does not shy away from actual tortures created by white slave owners to rein in their slaves: Charlotte’s terrible punishment for stealing a bolt of cloth, Handful’s disfigurement from an accident in the “work house,” the whippings and branding of slaves.   Sarah’s witnessing a slave being beaten leaves her with a lifetime stutter.

Following Grimké’s actual life, Kidd inserts romance and ambition into the mix, with younger sister Angelina eventually becoming her partner in the cause to free the slaves.  Names appear – contemporaries of the abolitionist ladies – Lucretia Mott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier – who became more famous than the Grimké  sisters, and Kidd notes that Sarah Grimké’s  writings were the precursor and possible inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as the seed for future women’s rights activists.

The story kept my attention and I was happy for Kidd’s notes at the end – saved me from looking up the sisters on google.  As I read, I had wondered how much was true, and the author graciously reveals not only her inspirations but also how much did stray from the facts.  Handful, who is the imagined character, is much more compelling to follow; her strong-willed defiance that often results in terrible consequences creates more adventure and suspense than Sarah’s real life.  Yet, once again, reading how women like Sarah survived and thrived under suffocating circumstances in those times is always a good reminder of a past often forgotten.

One of my favorite lines from the book, which Kidd notes Sarah actually said:

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

“All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet off our necks.”

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Travel Through Children’s Books

Tours that follow an author can be inviting. Literature tours in England follow Austen and Bronte;  New England in the United States attracts followers of Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  A friend gave me an article from the Wall Street Journal – Going By the Children’s Book – with Liam Callahan’s suggestions for touring Paris through children’s book authors.   Although I have often dreamed of following Julia Child through France, his itinerary also has appeal:

  • Bemelmans’ Madeleine captures Paris from Sacre Coeur to the Jardin des Tuileries;
  • Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (a film before it became a book) floats through Montmartre;
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret looks back at the famous train station and local streets.

Callahan provides a map with tangential adventures, the possibility of buying a book store, and additional books to inspire your literary trip:

  • Adele and Simon by Barbara McClintock
  • Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Yolleck and Prideman

My favorite is Rupert Kingfisher’s  Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles – “selling all kinds of rare and exotic delicacies” – a culinary adventure – but Julia Child would wonder over the cobra brains in black butter.

Caroline Kennedy – She Walks in Beauty

Curiosity about the author led me to Caroline Kennedy’s anthology, She Walks in Beauty.  Organized in thirteen chapters that follow “a woman’s journey” from “falling in love” to learning “how to live,” the book includes poetry from the well-known to the obscure, from traditional to modern poets.

Kennedy begins each chapter with a personal introduction to the theme she is exploring, and, at times, provides glimpses into the famous Kennedy family, with references to Grandma Rose’s attention to her granddaughter’s clothing, cousin Maria Shriver’s practical jokes, or her mother’s favorite poem (Ithaka by Constantine Cavafy).  But she directs most of her comments to her own relationship with poetry as a way to communicate, meditate, and sometimes just sooth.  She offers her observations about only a few selected poems within each section; she leaves the rest up to the reader.

I did read through all the poems, and found a few verses to jot down for future reference…like the cynical Dorothy Parker’s Unforgettable Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is 
Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

Marge Piercy’s What’s That Smell in the Kitchen? – “Burning dinner is not incompetence but war” could be on a plaque.

Father’s day is coming, and Ralph Waldo Emerson offered advice – From A Letter to His Daughter

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities
no doubt have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with 
your old nonsense.
This day is all that is
good and fair.
It is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on yesterdays.

Caroline Kennedy exposes a little of herself in her selections.  The last section of the book – “How to Live” – includes poems that have become her private mantras, and she writes that “the poems in this section are the reward for making it through the rest of the book.”  I liked this section best, and it might have been better to start with these.  More than the other sections, this one seemed less forced to fit under the section heading.

I’m returning the book to the library but I did enjoy a few pleasant afternoons mulling Kennedy’s selections.  Poetry is personal; we all get what we need from reading it, and Kennedy’s book sparked a renewed appreciation for taking a break from prose with poetry – as well as the chance to reread some old favorites and find new ones.