Friday, June 23, 2017

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I picked up this book a the library the other week. I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees by Kidd, so I thought I would probably like this book as well. The book follows a slave named Handful (or Hetty) and some of her owners, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two  sisters from Charleston, SC, who become abolitionists and feminists in the early 1800s.

When I was in high school, we took these trips down to LA as part of the National Honor Society. Mostly, we just joined that group so we could take the trip. It involved going to Hard Rock Cafe or Santa Monica Beach or some "cool" place like that and it was always fun. One time, we went to the (at the time, newly opened) Museum of Tolerance in LA. I remember that trip being a little depressing (obviously) and my only lasting impression from that museum was a pile of shoes. Shoes upon shoes upon shoes. All of them left when Jews were led to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. I don't know what it was about those shoes, maybe it was the familiarity (I wear shoes all the time) or how personal they are (we all have different shoes) or the fact that those shoes touched someone who was then brutally murdered, I don't know, but it made the Holocaust much more horrific to me. Much more real (more meaningful than reading about it in a history book).

I started Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and I honestly could not get through it. The horrific descriptions of how people were kidnapped in Africa and chained down in a ship to be sold for slavery was more than I could honestly handle. I had never thought of slavery that way. I can remember asking my mom when I was a kid if people treated slaves nicely and then maybe if they did treat them nicely if slavery was OK. Nope, never OK and people were never nice. To force a person into submission like that you cannot be nice. Nice is never a part of it. I had never appreciated that aspect of slavery. I had never really understood slavery and what it would have been like for people, day in, day out. I don't think I have the brains to understand it. But it is something that I need to remind myself of and I need to teach my kid about and I need to try to face, difficult as it is.

The older I get, the more horrified I am by things happening in recent history. The Holocaust, slavery, reconstruction, integration, the fight for equal rights. There are no words for how abhorrent some peoples' actions have been. I can't explain how I can know about these things for years, since I started school, but not truly appreciate what these things did to people, especially people of color.

This book was unreal. The novel begins with Sarah receiving Handful as a gift for her 11th birthday. Her mother ties a purple bow around Handful's neck and presents her to Sarah at her birthday tea. Sarah tries to refuse her; she doesn't want a slave, but her mother insists. Handful's mother, Charlotte lives with the Grimké family as well and Handful is forced to leave her mother's bed and sleep on the floor outside Sarah's room in case Sarah needs something in the night. Sarah is upset by slavery and at this young age, tries to free Handful (but is stopped by her father, a judge). Sarah and Nina are real people who left behind journals, letters and writings on the horrors of slavery and feminism. Kidd based her novel on what she knew about them. Sarah also (in real life) had a maid named Hetty who was presented to her as a gift. But we have no idea what happened to her in real life - it seems she died young. Kidd invents a life for Handful/Hetty and imagines what it would be like.

Sarah teaches Handful to read, and they become close friends (not sure what other word to use here, but Sarah has sympathy and empathy for Handful's position and tries to set her free in the only ways she can). This book is heartbreaking. The way the Grimké family treated slaves was horrific, to put it mildly. I cannot imagine being born into slavery and knowing nothing else. I also cannot imagine not being able to leave a place whenever I wanted. What freedom we have!

The story follows both Sarah and Handful as they navigate the life they are given. Sarah starts off with a voice, loses this voice for a while and then finds her voice, literally, in lectures for abolition. Handful draws strength from her mother, even when her mother is no longer there. This book was about strength, but also about what horrors people can survive and continue on. I both loved and hated this book and I feel like I learned a lot from it. I would highly recommend it as it's well written and compelling. However, it's obviously got me thinking about lots of things like slavery, racism (why are people such assholes?), why are cops shooting unarmed, harmless black people? and all kinds of stuff like that.

Sorry for the random stream of consciousness. Guess that's what this blog is for...