The Invention of Wings

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Overview

From the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees, a magnificent novel about two unforgettable American women
 
 
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world—and it is now the newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.

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Overview

From the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees, a magnificent novel about two unforgettable American women
 
 
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world—and it is now the newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

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  • Oprah Interview with Sue Monk Kidd for Retail
    Oprah Interview with Sue Monk Kidd for Retail  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In her latest work, the author of The Secret Life of Bees weaves fiction onto the fabric of history in a story about Sarah, the older of the two famed abolitionist Grimké sisters, and her "birthday gift" personal slave, the very aptly-named Handful. The two adolescents attempt to carve out a human relationship; Sarah even illegally teaching her charge to read; but in antebellum Charleston, such "incendiary" deviations are treated seriously and both are punished. The Invention of Wings traces the relations of these accidental allies over thirty years, charting their challenges, defeats, and triumphs with unsentimental verve.

Publishers Weekly
10/21/2013
Sarah and Handful Grimké split the narration in Kidd’s third novel, set in pre–Civil War Charleston, S.C., and along an abolitionist lecture circuit in New England. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) is no stranger to strong female characters. Here, her inspiration is the real Sarah Grimké, daughter of an elite Charleston family, who fought for abolition and women’s rights. Handful, Kidd’s creation, is Sarah’s childhood handmaid. The girls are friends. Sarah teaches Handful to read, and proclaims loudly at dinner that she opposes slavery. However, after being severely punished, she abandons her aspirations—for decades. Time passes, and Handful is given the freedoms she was formerly denied. The book’s scope of 30-plus years contributes to a feeling of plodding in the middle section. Particularly insufferable is the constant allusion, by both women, to a tarnished button that symbolizes perseverance. But Kidd rewards the patient reader. Male abolitionists, preachers, and Quakers repeatedly express sexist views, and in this context, Sarah’s eventual outspokenness is incredibly satisfying to read. And Handful, after suffering a horrific punishment, makes an invaluable contribution to an attempted slave rebellion. Bolstered by female mentors, Kidd’s heroines finally act on Sarah’s blunt realization: “We can do little for the slave as long as we’re under the feet of men.” Agent: Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, WME Entertainment. (Jan.)
Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
Women played a large role in the fledgling abolitionist movement preceding the Civil War by several decades but were shushed by their male compatriots if they pointed out their own subservient status. One of several recent novels noting the similarity between women having few rights and slaves having none in the pre-Civil War American South (others include Marlen Suyapa Bodden's The Wedding Gift and Jessica Maria Tuccelli's Glow), Monk's (The Secret Life of Bees) compelling work of historical fiction stands out from the rest because of its layers of imaginative details of the lives of actual abolitionists from Charleston, SC—Sarah and Angelina Grimké—and Handful, a young slave in their family home. With her far more desperate desire for freedom, Handful steals the story from the two freethinking sisters while they wrestle with their consciences for years, still bound by society's strictures. VERDICT This richly imagined narrative brings both black history and women's history to life with an unsentimental story of two women who became sisters under the skin—Handful, a slave in body whose mind roves freely and widely, and "owner" Sarah, whose mind is shackled by family and society. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Laurie Cavanaugh, Holmes P.L., Halifax, MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-05
Kidd (The Mermaid Chair, 2005, etc.) hits her stride and avoids sentimental revisionism with this historical novel about the relationship between a slave and the daughter of slave owners in antebellum Charleston. Sarah Grimké was an actual early abolitionist and feminist whose upbringing in a slaveholding Southern family made her voice particularly controversial. Kidd re-imagines Sarah's life in tandem with that of a slave in the Grimké household. In 1803, 11-year-old Sarah receives a slave as her birthday present from her wealthy Charleston parents. Called Hetty by the whites, Handful is just what her name implies--sharp tongued and spirited. Precocious Sarah is horrified at the idea of owning a slave but is given no choice by her mother, a conventional Southern woman of her time who is not evil but accepts slavery (and the dehumanizing cruelties that go along with it) as a God-given right. Soon, Sarah and Handful have established a bond built on affection and guilt. Sarah breaks the law by secretly teaching Handful to read and write. When they are caught, Handful receives a lashing, while Sarah is banned from her father's library and all the books therein, her dream of becoming a lawyer dashed. As Sarah and Handful mature, their lives take separate courses. While Handful is physically imprisoned, she maintains her independent spirit, while Sarah has difficulty living her abstract values in her actual life. Eventually, she escapes to Philadelphia and becomes a Quaker, until the Quakers prove too conservative. As Sarah's activism gives her new freedom, Handful's life only becomes harder in the Grimké household. Through her mother, Handful gets to know Denmark Vesey, who dies as a martyr after attempting to organize a slave uprising. Sarah visits less and less often, but the bond between the two women continues until it is tested one last time. Kidd's portrait of white slave-owning Southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated, while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670024780
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/7/2014
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 646
  • Lexile: 920L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.68 (w) x 9.38 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd is the award-winning and bestselling author of the novels The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs, including the New York Times bestseller Traveling with Pomegranates, written with her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor. She lives in Florida.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

The Invention of Wings, a powerful and sweeping historical novel by Sue Monk Kidd, begins, fittingly, with an image of flight: Hetty "Handful," who has grown up as a slave in early-nineteenth-century Charleston, recalls the night her mother told her that her ancestors in Africa could fly over trees and clouds. That day, Handful's mother, Charlotte, gave her daughter the gift of hope-the possibility that someday she might regain her wings and fly to freedom. Throughout Kidd's exquisitely written story, Handful struggles, sometimes with quiet dissidence, sometimes with open rebellion, to cultivate a belief in the invincibility of her spirit and in the sacred truth that one does not need actual wings in order to rise.

Barely a stone's throw from the slave quarters where Handful and her mother share a room behind the grand Grimké house, another young woman fights a different battle with the constraints of her society. Sarah Grimké is the middle daughter of a wealthy and prominent family at the pinnacle of Charleston's social hierarchy-the daughter her mother calls difficult and her father calls remarkable. From the time of her first violent childhood confrontation with slavery, Sarah is unable to abide the oppression and brutality of the slave system that surrounds her. Ambitious and keenly intelligent, she harbors an intense longing to have a voice in the world and to follow her father's and brothers' footsteps to a profession in the law. Crushed by the strictures that her family and society impose on women, Sarah forges a tortuous yet brave path toward abolition and women's rights-a crusade in which she will be joined by her fiery sister Angelina.

The story begins on Sarah's eleventh birthday, when ten-year-old Handful is abruptly pulled from the Grimkés' work yard, adorned in lavender ribbons, and presented to Sarah as a gift. Sarah tries in vain to decline, but over time, the two create a bond that will ultimately and dramatically shape their destinies.

As their intertwined stories unfold in their own voices, Sarah will eventually break from the only life she knows and go north to become an exile, encountering love and heartbreak, repression and renaissance as she searches for her voice and her place of belonging. Back home, Handful will experience her mother's mysterious disappearance, finding strength and answers in the story quilt she leaves behind. When Denmark Vesey, a free black man with messianic charisma, plots a dangerous slave insurrection in the heart of Charleston, Handful becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that threatens to shake the city to its foundations.

Inspired by actual historical figures like Sarah and Angelina Grimké and Denmark Vesey and enlivened by original creations like Charlotte and Handful, The Invention of Wings is the extraordinary story of two struggles for freedom: the battle of Handful to find the wings her mother promised and the equally intense quest of Sarah to liberate her mind and spirit. This triumphant novel also speaks with wisdom about the nature of evil and injustice, the courage to dare what seems unattainable, and the hope inside of us that the worst darkness can't extinguish.

ABOUT SUE MONK KIDD

Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002), became a genuine literary phenomenon, selling more than six million copies in the United States and remaining on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. Named Book Sense Book of the Year in 2004, it was adapted into an award-winning movie. Kidd's second novel, The Mermaid Chair (2005), sold more than a million copies and garnered the Quill Award for General Fiction. She has cowritten a bestselling memoir with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story (2009),as well as authoring several acclaimed memoirs, including The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996).Kidd lives in southwest Florida with her husband, Sandy, and their black Labrador retriever.

A CONVERSATION WITH SUE MONK KIDD

You had never heard of the Grimké sisters before you received the inspiration for The Invention of Wings. How did you first hear about them, and what was it about their story that captivated you?

I first came upon the Grimké sisters in 2007 while visiting Judy Chicago's Dinner Party exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Their names were listed on the Heritage Panels, which honor 999 women who've made important contributions to western history. Later, I was astonished to discover they were from Charleston, South Carolina, the same city in which I was then living. Somehow I'd never heard of these two amazing women, but I immediately dove in, learning everything I could, and the more I learned, the more excited I became. I discovered that Sarah and Angelina were from a wealthy slave-holding family, at the top of the planter class, moving in the elite circles of society, and yet they broke with everything-their family, religion, homeland, and traditions-and became the first female abolition agents in America and among the earliest feminist thinkers. They were, arguably, the most radical females to ever come out of the antebellum South. I fell in love with their story. I was especially drawn to Sarah. I was moved by how thoroughly life was arranged against her and what she overcame, by how deeply she yearned to have a voice in the world, by how utterly human she was, and how determinedly she invented her wings.

I came of age in prefeminist America. In 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and reignited the women's revolution, I sat in a home economics class in high school, hemming skirts and learning how to make a home into a man's castle. I still recall the list of occupations for women I copied off the blackboard: teacher, nurse, secretary, sales clerk, homemaker . . . As I recall, there were fewer than twenty of them. I remember this moment quite well because I harbored a deep and formidable desire to be a writer, and it was nowhere on the roster. When I headed to college, I studied nursing, a noble profession, but it wasn't my place of belonging. I hadn't yet figured out how to think and act outside the confines of the world that shaped me. It took eight years after graduating from college for me to break out and pursue writing. Today, that reminds me a little of Sarah, who also had failures of courage and who was sometimes slow to take her leap. Oddly enough, it wasn't Friedan's book that shook me. It was Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening. Edna Pontellier's agonizing struggle against the limits her culture placed on women nearly leveled me. The lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimké affected me in a similar way. I know the world is radically different now, but I'm a believer that girls and women, and all of us really, need all the stories of courage and daring we can get.

The Invention of Wings is voiced by two verbally powerful narrators: Sarah Grimké, who is inspired by the real-life abolitionist and feminist of the same name, and Hetty Handful, who is the child of your imagination. How does creating a character from the ground up differ from adapting a real person into a fictional persona, and which do you find more challenging?

One of the more unexpected things I experienced in writing the novel was that Handful's character and voice came to me with more ease than Sarah's. Handful would talk, talk, talk. Often I couldn't keep up with her. When I first began writing in her voice, the only parameters I gave myself were that I didn't want her voice to be weighed down with dialect and it must have traces of humor. I'd read a great many first-person slave narratives from the nineteenth century, as well as the Federal Writers' Project of the 1930s, and I had the voices of African American women from my own childhood still resonating in me, along with those of the quilting women of Gee's Bend, but I think what made Handful so accessible to me was her free, unrestricted reign in my imagination. She did not come with the fetters of a previous history. She could speak and do as she wished.

Sarah, on the other hand, came with a large historical script, and that turned out to be one of my biggest challenges. I revered Sarah's history to the point that I initially became boxed in by it. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting her venture outside factual borders. The longer she was cooped up by the facts, the quieter she got. I'd read the Grimké sisters' diaries and essays, and while they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, their writing was rendered in nineteenth-century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety, and stilted phrases. I wanted Sarah's voice in my novel to feel authentic and carry some of the vernacular of the time, but I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it. I rewrote her first chapters over and over before I felt like I'd found her voice. Finding it was all about loosening it. I realized I had to tap in to Sarah's inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless lace as well as from the time in which she lived. I needed to let her veer off script. I had to find Sarah in my imagination and in history. Doing so brought her alive for me.

What was the process of writing the novel like for you? How did you go about your research? You've commented that you went further out on the writing limb with this novel than you've been before. What did you mean?

It took four years to write The Invention of Wings-three and a half years of writing, following six months of research. I'm not the fastest writer on the block. I spent a lot of protracted time sitting at the computer screen just contemplating the story, letting my imagination browse, trying to connect little dots, allowing ideas and revelations to come to me. Plus, I was constantly stopping to look up something in a book-what sort of mourning dress did women wear in 1819? What book titles would be on a library shelf in 1804? What were the emancipation laws in South Carolina? When I wasn't ruminating or scouring books, I was writing, and then rewriting as I went, rarely moving to the next chapter until I felt I'd rendered the last one as close as possible to the final draft. I would easily spend an entire day tinkering with the prose on a single page.

The way into the early nineteenth century, of course, is through an awful lot of research. My husband joked I spent more time in the nineteenth century than I did in the twenty-first. My aim was to create a world for the reader to enter, one as richly textured, tangible, and authentic as I could make it. I read and read, filling up five big notebooks with details and ideas. I drew maps of the interior of the Grimké house and the work yard and etched a loose outline of the thirty-five-year span of the story on large sheets of paper, one for each of the book's six parts. I hung them in my study, using them to map the flow of events. I also made lots of field trips, visiting libraries, museums, historical societies, and historic houses, all of which I might have enjoyed a little too much because I finally had to make myself stop reading, mapping, and traipsing about and start writing.

It's hard to articulate why it seemed this book took me further out on a limb. Maybe because the story had to accommodate such a sweeping amount of time. Maybe because it had two different narrators whose stories needed to be a match for one another, whose voices had to be distinct, and whose journeys had to be synchronized. I was challenged, as I've already mentioned, by writing from the complicated intersection of imagination and history, and quite honestly, it was unnerving to take on something as big as slavery. Most daunting, though, was the notion of writing from the mind, heart, and persona of an enslaved person. I wanted to create Handful in a way that was convincing and respectful. It might have been safer to write her character from a third-person perspective, and I did actually start off that way, but I hadn't written two pages before her first-person voice broke in, and that was that. I'm forever plastering quotes and evocations about my study. One that I kept on my desk as I wrote this novel simply said: Be fearless on the page. I often paused to read it. It caused me to at least try.

For us, one of the pivotal moments in the story comes when Handful reads the ledger on which she and her mother are listed and appraised as part of the Grimké family's property. What does that moment in the novel mean to you?

During my research, I came upon a thesis about the Grimkés' Charleston house that included a transcript of a legally executed inventory and appraisal of all the goods and chattels in the house at the time of Sarah's father's death in 1819. As I read through this long and detailed list, I was shocked to come upon the names of seventeen slaves. They were inserted between a Brussels staircase carpet and eleven yards of cotton and flax. I read their names, their ages, the roles they performed-coachman, cook, waiting maid, washer, house servant, seamstress, etc.-and I read what they were supposedly worth. One slave, Diana, thirty-six, was listed as "useless" and valued at $1. There were four children included, ages eight, six, four, and three months. The eight-year-old was named Ben, the same as my grandson. Their mother was Bess, age thirty. Together the five of them had been valued at $1,500.

The moment hit me close to the bone, in part because of how real and close these human beings suddenly seemed, but also because of the sheer banality and acceptability of listing them as possessions among the carpets and cloth. Here was not just our human capacity for cruelty, but also our ability to render it invisible. How do such things happen? How do we grow comfortable with the particulars of evil? How are we able to normalize it? How does evil gather when no one is looking? Discovering the seventeen names on the ledger was when I understood how dangerous it is to separate ourselves from our history, even when it's unspeakably painful.

Of course, the inventory found its way into the novel with Handful unearthing it in the library and finding her and her mother's names and appraised values. I suppose, for me, the scene represents the inevitable confrontation with the trauma of slavery, one that's all the more necessary because we have 246 years of slavery embedded inour history, and we can still hardly bear to look at it.

The Invention of Wings is about several simultaneous struggles for freedom. How did you develop the movements toward freedom in Handful's and Sarah's characters?

Handful and Sarah are both imprisoned in their own particular way. As a white woman in South Carolina in the early 1800s, even a privileged one, Sarah had a life that was vastly limited. Women had few rights, not to property or even to their own children. Essentially, they were the property of their husbands, and their purpose in life was to marry, have children, and live their lives within the domestic sphere. And yet their lack of freedom could not compare to the horrific subjugation of enslaved women whose entire lives were determined by their owners and whose suffering was infinitely worse. I felt like the primary thing I had to do was never lose sight of that.

As for how I developed Handful's and Sarah's individual quests for freedom, I'm reminded of a certain looming moment in the story when Handful says to Sarah, "My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it's the other way round." Handful is conveying a truth she knows only too well herself, that one's mind can become a cage, too. Finding their freedom had to do with liberating themselves internally, discovering a sense of self, and the boldness to express that self. There's a scene in which Handful willfully takes a bath in the Grimkés' majestic copper bathtub. I can't tell you how much pleasure I derived from writing this scene. Handful's bath is tinged with defiance, but it becomes a baptism into her own worth. Observing her in the aftermath of it, Sarah says, "She had the look of someone who'd declared herself." Handful has begun to understand that even though her body is trapped in slavery, her mind is her own. The question then became how to emancipate herself physically. What needed to transpire inside of her to bring her to the crucial moment of risking everything? I felt that the moment occurs near the end of the story, when little missus disparages the story portrayed in Charlotte's quilt and Handful fears she may burn it. I saw this moment as a kind of watershed in which all the accumulated sorrows and deprivations of Handful's life, and even of her mother's life, come together, causing her to want freedom more than the next breath. "To leave or die trying."

Sarah was steeped in family and cultural expectations for women, which crashed over and over against her ravenous intellect and hunger for an education, her passion for a vocation, her indomitable moral compass, and her courage-qualities that came to be reflected in her silver fleur-de -is button, an object she would lose and refind, figuratively, many times. The development of Sarah's freedom necessitated a whole series of "copper tub moments," each one bringing her a little closer to breaking fully free. My favorite such moment may be when she's caring for her dying father at the Jersey shore, and she wades into the ocean. Turning loose of the sea rope, to which all the women grasp, she strides off on her own into the waves. Floating alone in the water, far from the tether, became her own baptism into her apartness and independence. It was a small beginning. Later, she would have another moment when the inner voice showed up, telling her to go north. They go on and on, but the final piece of her liberation doesn't come, perhaps, until the end, when she's able to speak her mind in the house where she was born.

Sarah shared a close friendship with Lucretia Mott. What motivated you to include this relationship in the story?

It was a surprise for me when Lucretia Mott turned up as a character. I knew from my research that Mott, a famous abolitionist and women's rights pioneer herself, had attended the same meetinghouse in Philadelphia as Sarah, at least for a time, but I didn't know she would step into the pages of my story until the very moment she did so. It was a relief to me when she turned up. At this juncture, Sarah is alone in the North, and the only female presence in her life is Israel's sister, who is hardly a friend to her. Inevitably, a community of women will show up in my fiction, even if it's a community of two.

Many years ago, when I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, I was captivated by the idea of a woman having an independent space that belongs to her, that's devoted to her creative life and her intellectual and spiritual liberation. I rather loved creating such a room in Lucretia's house, a place where she and Sarah could spend time together. It is cozy, full of books, journals, art palettes, and velvet squares pinned with luna moths, which Lucretia finds lifeless in the garden, and it looks out over a copse of trees. Sarah calls it a studio, but it's inspired by Woolf's room of one's own. So much of Sarah's life is about exile and seeking her place of belonging in the world, and it seemed that the studio would offer her a taste of what belonging to one's self could be like. The studio wasn't on the pages of the novel for very long, but the time the two women spent there was distilled and transforming for Sarah.

It was in the studio that Sarah poured out her story to Lucretia and had it truly received. At one point, Sarah asks Lucretia, "Do you think I could become a Quaker minister?" and Lucretia responds, "Sarah Grimké, you're the most intelligent person I know. Of course you could." Sarah had never really known this kind of listening, validation, and encouragement. The scene brought to my mind theologian Nelle Morton's words, that women "hear one another into speech," and I thought, too, of the theologian Mary Daly, who said, "Only women hearing each other can create a counterworld to the prevailing reality."

There's a line in the novel that I truly loved writing, which actually thrilled me to write-it was four words that I had Lucretia send in a letter to Sarah and Angelina during their public crusade and which arrived at the height of backlash against them. It said, simply: Press on, my sisters. Honestly, I think it was I who wanted to say those words to Sarah and Angelina every bit as much as Lucretia did.

How did you go about writing the complicated relationship between Handful and Sarah?

It's hard to come up with a relationship between characters more challenging to write about than that of an owner and a slave. Even if the owner is an unwilling one, even if she has an abolitionist's heart beating in her chest, as Sarah does, it's still a problematic situation. It was the thing that kept me up at nights-Handful and Sarah's fraught connection and whether I was getting it right. In the novel, their relationship spans three and a half decades, much of which they spend as constant companions. To a large extent, they mold one another's lives and shape each other's destinies. There's an undeniable caring between them, but also the built-in gulf of slavery. Handful tries to capture it when she says, "People say love gets fouled by a difference big as ours. I didn't know for sure whether Miss Sarah's feelings came from love or guilt. I didn't know whether mine came from love or a need to be safe. She loved me and pitied me. And I loved her and used her. It never was a simple thing."

Their relationship is disfigured by so many things: guilt, shame, pity, resentment, defiance, estrangement. I tried to create a relationship between them that allows for all of that yet also has room for surprise, redemption, and even love. Someone who read an early copy of the novel commented that the two women create a sisterhood against all odds. I think they do-an uneasy, but saving sisterhood.

One of the more unique and striking aspects of the novel is Charlotte's story quilt. What drew you to include it in the story? What meaning did you want it to carry?

I was inspired by the quilts of Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery in 1837 in Georgia. She used West African appliqué technique and designs to tell stories, mostly about biblical events, legends, and astronomical occurrences. Each of the squares on her two surviving quilts is a masterpiece of art and narration. After viewing her quilt in the archives of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., it seemed more than plausible to me that many enslaved women, who were forbidden to read and write, would have devised subversive ways to voice themselves, to keep their memories alive, and to preserve their African heritage. In the novel, Charlotte is the Grimkés' rebellious and accomplished seamstress, and I envisioned her using needle and cloth the way others use paper and pen, attempting to set down the events of her life in a single quilt. She appliqués it with strange, beautiful images-slaves flying through the air, spirit trees with their trunks wrapped in red thread-but she also sews violent and painful images of her punishments and loss. The quilt in the novel is meant to be more than a warm blanket or a nice piece of handiwork. It is Charlotte's story. As Handful says, "Mauma had sewed where she came from, who she was, what she loved, the things she'd suffered, and the things she hoped. She'd found a way to tell it."

Above all, I wanted Charlotte's story quilt to speak about the deep need we have to make meaning out of what befalls us. I wanted it to suggest how important it is to take the broken, painful, and discarded fragments of our lives and piece them into something whole. There can be healing, and power, too, in giving expression to what's inside of us, in having our voices heard and our pain witnessed. As writer Isak Dinesen put it, "All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them."

Sarah Grimké was both attracted to and repelled by organized religion. What role does it play in Sarah's life? How, if at all, does religion influence Handful? How would you describe Handful's spirituality?

The real-life Sarah Grimké was more pious than my version of her in the novel. During her Presbyterian and Quaker years, her devoutness seemed, at times, to border on asceticism. There's speculation among her biographers that her self-denial might have influenced her refusal to marry as much as her desire for independence. Both Sarahs, though, the one in history and the one in my story, carry on an intricate relationship with church and faith that was as conflicted as it was compatible. In the novel, it begins as twelve-year-old Sarah sits in church listening to the minister defend slavery. I felt it was important to acknowledge that slavery was supported not just by the government, but largely by the church. The scene in St. Philip's precipitates Sarah's first crisis of faith. Did I make up my God, she asks, or did the reverend make up his? Later, in the wake of her heartbreak from her first love, Burke Williams, she leaves the Anglicans for the Presbyterians. She was genuinely in pursuit of God, but I muddied the water a bit, suggesting she was also in pursuit of a way out of the miseries she experienced in Charleston society.

From the time Sarah is four and witnesses a slave whipping-the "unspeakable" thing that mutes her voice-she moves between voice and voicelessness, her words often stuck in her throat. It struck me as fascinating and more than coincidental that she gives herself to the Quakers, a religion centered on the inner voice. As a Quaker, she's compelled to listen for a voice inside, a true one, and find a way to articulate it on her tongue. This, of course, is the large and ongoing struggle of her own life. Her audacious move to the Quakers gave her a way out of the South, just as the Presbyterians had given her a way out of society, and their doctrines supported and emboldened her antislavery beliefs and opened up the possibility of a vocation as a minister. She would pin all her hopes on the latter. She lands, however, in a branch of Quakerism that takes a highly conservative approach, and she often finds herself at odds with it. Her conflict with organized religion is nowhere more pronounced than in the scripture verse: "I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence," a verse that was hauled out and used against her by New England ministers during her public crusade. After her expulsion from the Quakers, organized religion held less sway over her, and she came to rely more on her own spiritual core.

As a child, Handful compared God to master Grimké and wondered if there was a black God, too. Like many slaves in Charleston, she participated in house devotions, which helped to Christianize the slaves, but it was also a means of controlling them. Accentuating Bible verses on obedience, submission, and suffering was common. On this score, though, Handful learned how to give almost as good as she got. She adopted the "Jesus-act" from her mother, which she used to her advantage. It got her permission to attend the African church, where she hoped to obtain information about her mother, but surprisingly enough to her, she found herself drawn into the church's message of hope and deliverance. She found strength in the solidarity of the congregation. But I think, at heart, Handful was an animist, finding her connection with the divine through natural objects like the water she watched with such devotion from the alcove, making up songs to it. Her belief that God animated nature seems present, too, in her devotion to the spirit tree. In some ways, the tree, which she tended with red thread and wore pieces of about her neck, was her real "church." It was a sort of sanctuary, a place of ritual, a place that held her spirit, her pain, and her hope. The water and the tree, and perhaps even the birds in the branches, seemed to mediate God to her. They became Handful's primary scripture.

Your writing tends to do more for your readers than simply entertain them. Reading one of your novels can be a kind of transformation. How do you hope that The Invention of Wings might affect someone who reads it?

It would certainly please me if readers finished the novel having learned something new about slavery, about the history of the early nineteenth century and the innovations of thought that helped to create the abolition and women's rights movements. I would definitely be happy if it helped readers discover or rediscover Sarah and Angelina Grimké and the roles they played. I think every novelist wants her book to enlighten the mind in some way and be a carrier of ideas. My greatest hope, however, is for readers to take away a felt experience of the story, of what slavery might have been like for someone or what it was like back then for a woman without rights. I want the reader to feel as if he or she has participated in the interior lives of the characters and felt something of their yearnings, sufferings, joys, and braveries. Empathy-taking another's experience and making it one's own-is one of the most mysterious and noble transactions a human can have. It's the real power of fiction. While in college, I studied Ralph Waldo Emerson's concept of "the common heart," a place inside of us where we share an intrinsic unity with all humanity. The idea has remained with me all these years. As a writer, I believe in it. The hope that this story would help us find a portal into that place is the most I could hope.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The title The Invention of Wings was one of the first inspirations that came to Sue Monk Kidd as she began the novel. Why is the title an apt one for Kidd's novel? What are some of the ways that the author uses the imagery and symbolism of birds, wings, and flight?
  • What were the qualities in Handful that you most admired? As you read the novel, could you imagine yourself in her situation? How did Handful continue her relentless pursuit of self and freedom in the face of such a brutal system?
  • After laying aside her aspirations to become a lawyer, Sarah remarks that the Graveyard of Failed Hopes is "an all-female establishment." What makes her say so? What was your experience of reading Kidd's portrayal of women's lives in the nineteenth century?
  • In what ways does Sarah struggle against the dictates of her family, society, and religion? Can you relate to her need to break away from the life she had in order to create a new and unknown life? What sort of risk and courage does this call for?
  • The story of The Invention of Wings includes a number of physical objects that have a special significance for the characters: Sarah's fleur-de-lis button, Charlotte's story quilt, the rabbit-head cane that Handful receives from Goodis, and the spirit tree. Choose one or more of these objects and discuss their significance in the novel.
  • Were you aware of the role that Sarah and Angelina Grimké played in abolition and women's rights? Have women's achievements in history been lost or overlooked? What do you think it takes to be a reformer today?
  • How would you describe Sarah and Angelina's unusual bond? Do you think either one of them could have accomplished what they did on their own? Have you known women who experienced this sort of relationship as sisters?
  • Some of the staunchest enemies of slavery believed the time had not yet come for women's rights and pressured Sarah and Angelina to desist from the cause, fearing it would split the cause of abolition. How do you think the sisters should have responded to their demand? At the end of the novel, Sarah asks, "Was it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?"
  • What are some of the examples of Handful's wit and sense of irony, and how do they help her cope with the burdens of slavery?
  • Contrast Handful's relationship with her mother with the relationship between Sarah and the elder Mary Grimké. How are the two younger women formed-and malformed-by their mothers?
  • Kidd portrays an array of male characters in the novel: Sarah's father; Sarah's brother, Thomas; Theodore Weld; Denmark Vesey; Goodis Grimké, Israel Morris, Burke Williams. Some of them are men of their time, some are ahead of their time. Which of these male characters did you find most compelling? What positive and negative roles did they play in Sarah and Handful's evolvement?
  • How has your understanding of slavery been changed by reading The Invention of Wings? What did you learn about it that you didn't know before?
  • Sarah believed she could not have a vocation and marriage, both. Do you think she made the right decision in turning down Israel's proposal? How does her situation compare with Angelina's marriage to Theodore? In what ways are women today still asking the question of whether they can have it all?
  • How does the spirit tree function in Handful's life? What do you think of the rituals and meanings surrounding it?
  • Had you heard of the Denmark Vesey slave plot before reading this novel? Were you aware of the extent that slaves resisted? Why do you think the myth of the happy, compliant slave endured? What were some of the more inventive or cunning ways that Charlotte, Handful, and other characters rebelled and subverted the system?
  • The Invention of Wings takes the reader back to the roots of racism in America. How has slavery left its mark on American life? To what extent has the wound been healed? Do you think slavery has been a taboo topic in American life?
  • Are there ways in which Kidd's novel can help us see our own lives differently? How is this story relevant for us today?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 544 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2014

    I find the "highlighted by Oprah" text to be very dist

    I find the "highlighted by Oprah" text to be very distracting to the reading of this book.  I would not have purchased it if I had understood that all the highlighted text would hinder my reading and enjoyment of this book.  Won't purchase books with this "feature" again.  How do I get a copy without the distracting highlighting?

    46 out of 53 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair a

    I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review – but OMG was I excited when I did receive it because it’s an Oprah’s Book pick and I read alllll of her choices!

    The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is the kind of book that makes you want to be a better person.

    The newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 pick is incredibly moving. The story is told in dual narrative, following Sarah Grimke and a slave named Hetty “Handful” Grimke in the 1800s.

    Sarah is given Hetty as a gift for her eleventh birthday, and even at that young age, Sarah believes that slavery is immoral. But Sarah is caught in the Charleston upper class lifestyle and is useless in making a change. So she rebels the way she can, giving Hetty the freedom of literacy.
    Sarah evolves, trying to turn into someone she wants to be: a strong, independent woman, but her dreams are pushed down by everyone, including her family.

    Only when Sarah leaves the comforts of the South does she truly begin to understand the power that individual voices can have.

    At the same time, Hetty changes from young, rebellious slave girl to becoming a strong, still rebellious, woman.

    Both Sarah and Hetty’s stories are mesmerizing. Hetty is such a strong, spunky character who was so much like her mother: unwilling to bow down to every need and want from the master/missus.

    And then Sarah went fully against her own culture and society in order to fight for what she believed in – equality of all people, no matter the sex or race.

    Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is a book that makes me want to get out there and make a difference, to take a stand for a cause I truly believe it.

    The Invention of Wings is inspirational. So pick up this novel and get a little inspired yourself.

    What cause do you think is necessary to fight for?

    Thanks for reading, 

    Rebecca @ Love at First Book

    44 out of 55 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    So far, I am only on page 29, but love the book! The only thing

    So far, I am only on page 29, but love the book! The only thing that is frustrating for me is that I purchased this for my Nook, and the blue text hyperlinks keep sending me to the Oprah notes at the back of the book! So you have to be very, very careful when "turning" the pages with the blue hyperlinks....I discovered this when I had to find page 10 four times!!! Hopefully, the publisher will fix this soon, because otherwise, it is going to take me a really long time to finish this book!

    33 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 8, 2014

    Somehow I have missed reading Sue Monk Kidd's previous novels. M

    Somehow I have missed reading Sue Monk Kidd's previous novels. My sister handed me an advance copy of 'The Invention of Wings' on Christmas Eve. I finished it four days later and can't wait to read Mrs. Kidd's other work! This novel has stayed with me. The characters, Sarah and Handful, are beautifully developed... their stories intertwined, yet separate. The horrors of slavery and the attitudes toward women of that period, both black and white, are shocking and at times difficult to read. The beauty of Charlotte and Handful's bond and that of the Grimke sisters balances the novel. Strong writing, well researched (read Mrs. Kidd's comments at the end of the text) , haunting, thought provoking, and spiritual...I gladly give this novel 5 stars!

    25 out of 28 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 19, 2014

    This is a *wonderful* book, fully as good as The Life of Bees.

    This is a *wonderful* book, fully as good as The Life of Bees. This edition, however, includes long passages that are underlined with an "O" at the end, denoting a comment by, supposedly, Oprah. Because I find this highlighting to be distracting, spoiling the flow of the wonderfully written prose, I have given this edition a three star rating instead of the five the book deserves. The comments are banal and do not add to the story. I think the publisher made a mistake in this format. Surely the Oprah comments could be included in some other way to be less distracting. I wish there were an unannotated version available.

    17 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 21, 2014

    I found the highlighted notes by Oprah to be extremely distracti

    I found the highlighted notes by Oprah to be extremely distracting, thus robbing me of the enjoyment of reading this book.
    Rather unfortunate, as there doesn't seem to be another version of this nook book available.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2014

    Wonderful book! I loved it from the very first chapter, and cou


    Wonderful book! I loved it from the very first chapter, and couldn't put it down once I started. The story is gripping but sweet, sad but intriguing...and made me laugh sometimes too. The author did a wonderful job writing Hetty's story, as well as Sarah's.
    Note: I did NOT read this because it's an Oprah book club pick.

    I lost respect for Oprah when she went crazy over Obama and endorsed him with everything she had. And most of her books are not on my to-read list. This book was good because of Sue Monk Kidd's writing.

    14 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 20, 2014

    Didn't finish; got tired of Oprah in the first quarter. Don't ca

    Didn't finish; got tired of Oprah in the first quarter. Don't care what OW thought was meaningful or how she was moved.

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2014

    A Big, Satisfying Read.

    A Big, Satisfying Read. I have read Kidd's non fiction text with her daughter as well as 'Secret Life of Bee's' and 'Mermaid's Chair'; while I have always appreciated the writing talent in those books, I was never crazy about them--especially 'Mermaid.' But I opened this, curious, and ended up staying up almost all night finishing. This is a big, 'juicy' novel--it moves at a great pace with characters/plot that grab you, and keep you, virtually from the first page. The story of Sarah and her 'gift,' 10 year old Hetty (Handful) is not a warm and fuzzy story, however. Kidd does not back down from the horror and brutality of slavery and there are long stretches where the women are not even in the same place. However, their bond is never entirely destroyed--and from Sarah's desperate attempts to live an independent life to the (sometimes literal) shackles that hold Handful in slavery--Kidd shows how all women at this time were oppressed in different ways. My only quibble is about the ending--it seems to come off too suddenly and leaves some questions in light of what has come before. Yet that is minor--this is not a book to easily forget; these are powerful characters. Indeed, Handful's mother, Charlotte, could have been an entire novel in herself. Book clubs will devour this as well individuals; get it.

    13 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2014

    Great read with historical signifigance

    As I read, I looked up some of the historical characters, only to find that almost everyone in the book actually existed. Why had I never heard of the Grimke sisters? You will enjoy this book and come to love the characters, most of whom were important in early 19th century abolition efforts and were ahead of their time in feminist rights.

    12 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2014

    My review is for the Nook version only, and my rating is solely

    My review is for the Nook version only, and my rating is solely based on the ridiculous hyperlinked/underlined blue font. I almost didn't buy this book once Oprah named it one of her book picks because I can't stand her, and now I wish I hadn't bought this book. Please sell this book in Nook format without the ridiculous Oprah highlighting or whatever it is. I'd ask for my money back, but I'm still waiting on those eBook credits Barnes and Noble was supposed to send out OVER A YEAR AGO, so I'm sure there's no way I'd get a refund for this book.

    10 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2014

    Really?

    Really Barnes and Noble? Don't include copyright, contents, etc. as part of the samples. This was a five page sample and hardly enough for a reader to make a decision to purchase the book or not. This seriously has me wondering if I should have gone with Kindle instead of Nook.
    '

    9 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2014

    Like Reading a Used Book - Let the Buyer Beware

    I just started this book and it may be a wonderful book, but I was immediately turned off at all the underlined passages (entire paragraphs and sometimes pages) linking to Oprah's comments. Very distracting, like reading a used book that someone has underlined and made notes in. I prefer to read my books "unadulterated" and to choose whether or not I want to read others' comments. If there is a way to turn off the underlining, I'd sure like to know. A footnote symbol at the end of the passage (which is there too) would suffice to direct the reader to comments if interested and would be much less intrusive. Now I know not to purchase another ebook that says "Oprah's Book Club 2.0 Digital Edition."

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 17, 2014

    I loved this book.  I understand the author did a lot of researc

    I loved this book.  I understand the author did a lot of research before writing her novel.  If one researches the names they will find these are real people that lived during this unforgivable time and for someone to say it is all lies they must not know their history.  It must have taken a lot to fight slavery when it was accepted by so many, these sisters were way ahead of their time.  Love2learn 

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2014

    Grest read!

    I am a fan of this author, I loved this book! Must read!

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Wings is based loosely on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke, a

    Wings is based loosely on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke, a Southern aristocrat whose father is a bigshot judge on South Carolina's Supreme Court, where Sarah wants to be eventually. She is given a slave (Handful) for her 11th birthday, which strikes the little firebrand as something ridiculous. How can someone OWN another person? She doesn't want the "gift" but she's forced to accept.  I noticed it was riddled with these blue notes which threw me off. After searching around I realized these were Oprah's notes. No where in the title or book cover did I see anything that suggested that this had Oprah's notes in it, so I returned the kindle book right away. I was very disappointed because I really like this author and wanted to read the book that SHE wrote and form my own opinions. Luckily a friend told me how I could get the book without Oprah's notes by pressing on the plus sign when ordering the book and getting the other edition. Now how many people are going to go back and do that, which is a shame, because so far it's a really good book without Oprah's input.  I feel bad for the author it really is a good book. The book itself is wonderful. Just don't get the "Oprah" copy. I know I never will again.     

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2014

    Based on real, but not widely known historical figures, The Inve

    Based on real, but not widely known historical figures, The Invention of Wings is a poignant, imaginative tale of two sisters in early eighteen-hundred Charleston born into the power and wealth of Charleston’s aristocracy; and a slave named Handful who yearns for freedom. With them the reader embarks on an extensive, yet deeply riveting, journey as these two Grimké sisters undergo a painful metamorphosis breaking from their family, their religion, their homeland, and their traditions, to become exiles, and eventually pariahs, as they crusade not only for the immediate emancipation of slaves, but also for racial equality - an idea that was radical even among their fellow abolitionists.

    This is a novel with many, many layers, and not one that should be read in the span of a single afternoon. From the very beginning it is clear that the author did her research magnificently as she brings to life and stays true to the contours of Sarah Grimké’s history, her desires, struggles, motivations, crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, loneliness, self-doubt, ostracism, and her suffocating speech impediment. Simultaneously the reader is also thrust into Handful’s world. A world regulated by passes, searches, laws and edicts that controls every second of a slave’s life. An existence enforced by sheer brutality where slaves live in fear of being sent off to the Work House for the slightest perceived defiance of their masters, the City Guard, night watch, curfew, and vigilante committees.

    On her eleventh birthday, Sarah is given a ten-year-old slave, named Handful, to be her waiting maid. Defying the laws of South Carolina and her own jurist father who had helped to write those laws, Sarah teaches Handful to read, for which they are later both harshly punished. Of course, this doesn’t stop Sarah from wanting freedom for Handful and all the other slaves, but instead strengthens her resolve to expedite freedom for Handful by secretly continuing to teach her to read. Over time, these two women form an unusual bond which will bind them and serve as their foundation of trust, loyalty, and comfort for years to come. Although their struggles cannot be compared, Sarah and Handful’s lives are paralleled in their pursuit of freedom, albeit a desire for a different kind of freedom. Handful wishes for a life where she and her mother can live their lives on their own terms and make their own choices, whereas Sarah has an intense desire for a vocation, but is restricted to do so by the laws set in place by men.  Once Sarah’s sister, Angelina, is born and Sarah becomes her godmother, Nina is influenced by Sarah’s anti-slavery views which will ultimately shape her into becoming a formidable abolitionist. 

    I can’t express enough how deeply moved I was by the courage and fearlessness of these three women. Even though the story is told in alternating voices between Handful and Sarah, Angelina’s voice isn’t lost, and there are several secondary characters whose voices will leave a lasting impression on many readers. Supporting characters worth mentioning includes Sarah and Angelina’s devout, intolerant mother who is visibly undemonstrative in her affections towards her children, and often malicious to her slaves, inflicting on them severe and cruel punishments. And then there is Handful’s mother, Charlotte, who in her own subtle way proves to be a defiant, vengeful slave on whose bad side you don’t want to find yourself, but who is also the picture of endurance, strength, and resilience. Justifiably, her spiteful actions and behavior stems from continually having to endure abuse and acts of human depravity that defies the imagination.

    But let me cut myself short. The Invention of Wings is for fans who enjoyed The Help by Katherine Stockett, and Sue Monk-Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a glorious treasure trove of metaphors about how we define ourselves and how far we will go to stand up for what we believe in with all our hearts. The author’s interpretation of Sarah and Angelina Grimké’s lives, and their imaginary relationship with the fictional character, Handful, serves as inspiration on how to invent your wings in spite of the difficulties life sometimes have in store for us. In truth, I think everyone will take away something different from this book after reading it. I can’t fault anything in this story - characters, world-building, plot, narrative...anything. Everything was perfect. Even the minuscule amount of romance that was only a mere mention in the background was well-written and tastefully presented. Seriously, you want to read this. Now. Go!

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 12, 2014

    A really, really great book, the one you'll never forget, the on

    A really, really great book, the one you'll never forget, the one you want all of your daughters and friends to read, the one you'll read again because it's that kind of book_ that describes how I feel about The Invention of Wings. I live in Charleston and now have a new path to explore the next time I venture through the peninsula.  Thank you, Sue Monk Kidd, for this treasure of a book. 

    7 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 2, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    The Invention of Wings is loaded with inspiration and is for tho

    The Invention of Wings is loaded with inspiration and is for those who like to read books that make you want to make a difference and be a better person. There are many layers and may warrant a second reading in order to absorb every well-chosen word. This is one of those books that make you grateful for the life you have. The strong characters, Sarah and Handful, mold the story perfectly. I foresee that this book will be another haunting and thought-provoking success. I highly recommend.


    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2014

    Bad

    I read part of this book and quit because of overwhelming lies in it. I know it is supposed to be fiction, but writing such lies about the degree of the horror of slavery and saying that everyone suffered it is just stirring the racial pot. I threw my book in the trash and had to gargle to wash the bad taste oit of my mouth. It was atrocious.

    5 out of 81 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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