Novelties: “The Invention of Wings,” by Sue Monk Kidd

Historical fiction is a genre which must strive to find a balance between the parts of a story that are real and those that are added by the author to provide insight into our shared past. When writing about difficult or painful historical topics, authors can risk trivializing important events if they are not given the proper weight or placed in the right context. Slavery is one such topic, and this month’s featured works explore the ways in which various women in 19th century America were affected by the institution of slavery and by systematic oppression based on both race and gender in Southern society.

Inspired by real life historical figure Sarah Grimké, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (2014) mixes fiction with fact to create a story that touches on themes of friendship, personhood, and freedom. The novel explores the relationship between Sarah, a daughter of a wealthy Southern plantation owner, and Hetty, a slave gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. The reader sees Sarah struggle with the concept of owning another human being, becoming friends with Hetty (nicknamed “Handful”) but learning the harsh realities of all that slavery entails (Sarah is severely punished, for instance, for teaching Hetty to read). For her part, Hetty has to endure the full horror of human bondage, becoming separated from her family and tangled up in conspiracy and rebellion as she searches desperately for a path to freedom. By following the lives of Sarah and Hetty over the course of three decades, The Invention of Wings highlights the injustices surrounding slavery and the treatment of women in a way that diminishes neither and offers insight into what it means to value freedom.
Tracy Chevalier throws her own hat into the historical fiction ring with The Last Runaway (2013). Honor Bright is a young woman who leaves England in 1850 looking for a fresh start with her sister, Grace, and her future in-laws. Sadly, Grace dies en route to America, and Honor is left to build her new life as an outsider among strangers in a community that is both familiar and strikingly different. Living among the Quakers in Ohio, Honor is struck by the apparent hypocrisies and moral paradoxes that abound in a society that is built on moral fortitude but nonetheless recognizes the legitimacy of slavery as the law of the land. The novel is full of detail—including rich descriptions of everything from the period and setting to the practice of quilting—and deals with love and loss as Honor creates a place for herself and ultimately finds herself tested in her relationships with people on both sides of the slave trade. Her convictions lead her to get involved in helping fugitive slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, and to realize just how much strength it takes to flaunt the law when the law is itself unjust.
Shifting gears significantly, we have Valerie Martin’s Property (2003), which like The Invention of Wings deals with a relationship between two women, one free and one a slave, but which takes that relationship in an entirely different direction. Manon Gaudet lives with her husband, a man for whom she holds little respect and less love, on his sugar plantation. She is herself childless while he has two illegitimate children whom he has fathered with Sarah, a slave who was a wedding gift to Manon. Manon despises Sarah, in part because of the attentions she receives from Manon’s husband but much more so because Manon’s hatred of her husband and resentment for her own station in life leave her bitter and self-absorbed beyond the point of seeing Sarah as a fellow human being. Looking closely at the ways in which slavery warped the humanity of slave owners as well as the hopelessness it visited upon those like Sarah, Property refuses to sugarcoat the evils of the period and gives the reader a glimpse of how complicated the dynamics of oppression truly are.

The Invention of Wings and The Last Runaway are available to borrow at E.P. Foster Library, and Property can be requested from one of our other Ventura County Library branches. In addition, The Invention of Wings can be borrowed in eBook format through OverDrive. If you want to find more read-alikes, you can access NoveList Plus from our eLibrary’s Reading Suggestions section. If the book you are interested in is not currently on the shelf at your branch, you can always request that a copy be sent to the branch of your choice in person, over the phone, or online through our catalog.

Created by Ronald Martin.