#26-A Book Based on a True Story

Note: This is my first review, so bear with me! My goal is to get this started–so expect the format to evolve as the year progresses!

The Invention of Wings

by Sue Monk Kidd


Sue Monk Kidd (of The Secret Life of Bees fame) takes on historical fiction in her newest novel, The Invention of Wings. The story focuses on two girls, Sarah Grimke and Hetty “Handful” Grimke in the early 19th century in Charleston, South Carolina. The girls are the same age and live in the same house, but have one stark difference: Sarah is the privileged daughter of a slave-owning aristocrat, while Handful is a slave in Sarah’s house. More specifically, Sarah owns Handful, as Sarah’s mother gave Handful to Sarah as her handmaid for her eleventh birthday. The story chronicles the relationship between Sarah and Hetty for more than 30 years as both girls struggle against the limitations put on each of them by society.

What Works:

  • Each chapter switches perspective between Sarah and Handful, giving each girl a voice. I enjoyed this device; I think the same story told with an omniscient narrator would have made for a much less compelling read. Also, it would have been easy to make Handful’s chapters “cheesy” in the use of dialect, but the author did a great job of displaying differences in the two girls without being stereotypical, overly dramatic, or even too light.
  • Ms. Kidd did not gloss over the atrocities of slavery. There are descriptions in the novel that will make you cringe and wonder what in the world people were thinking. Also, I appreciate that the author did not make Sarah and Handful the best of friends. This story could have told a rosy story about a white girl and her black slave who acted like sisters and loved each other dearly, but instead describes the more likely scenario of the tension that must have existed in such a relationship where one girl literally was the property of the other. While Sarah and Handful do share closeness, at least at times throughout the story, their stories intertwine only in that Sarah discovers that the institution of slavery, even as practiced in her own family, inherently takes away the humanity of said slaves, simply because of their skin color, while Handful spends her life trying to break out of her bondage. Handful’s gaining her freedom is Sarah’s finally putting actions to her words.
  • The author uses the historical figures Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina and their fight for prohibition of slavery (and even civil rights) and women’s rights as the basis for her story, while adding fictional characters (namely, Handful and the other slaves) to add a different perspective, a personal one even. I appreciate Ms. Kidd’s research, as detailed in the notes that follow the novel, and I think her choices in what to elaborate and fictionalize work with the historical record. Using historical figures and actual events as the basis for a novel seems to me to be a daunting task, but Ms. Kidd does an excellent job weaving truth and fiction seamlessly.
  • I LOVE LOVE LOVE the use of quilts and quilting a record-keeping device for the slaves. Since laws made their learning to read and write illegal (as experienced by Handful and Sarah), the slaves had to use materials and abilities besides written ones to record their stories and history. Handful’s mother’s quilt demonstrates this art-based tradition beautifully.
  • The title stands as a great hint as to the theme of this novel. But make sure you look past the obvious wings! (I’m not going to tell you any more about that–you’ll have to do your own thinking there! It’s the English teacher in me; I can’t help but give you an assignment. 🙂 )

What Doesn’t Work:

  • I found that the middle of the story dragged a bit, and the last couple of sections made me long for some action. But maybe that is a good reminder of the waiting that countless slaves endured while praying and hoping for a better future. It’s hard to remember sometimes that life didn’t always move as quickly as our technology-soaked one does.
  • Several things (that escape my mind at the moment) that I encountered while reading hit me a little strange, but once I read the author’s notes at the end, I realized that this book is based on historical figures and events. So some of the things that the author included in the story that seemed a little odd to me probably found their way into the book because of their historical accuracy.

Final Thoughts:

The author hit a grand slam with the title, first sentence, and first couple of paragraphs of this book. (Richard Peck, a children’s novelist, once told me that you can tell a great book by a great opening line. I tend to agree.) I immediately wanted to keep reading and find out about these characters. Starting the story with Handful’s voice also pulls the reader into the story in a way that I do not think Sarah’s voice could. Throughout the story, Handful’s chapters are the ones that drive the story the most; her character is my favorite and the one who I would describe as the real hero.

Overall, I would give this book a good recommendation. While it’s not the best book I have ever read, it did open my eyes to some things that I did not know. The fact  that the story is based on historical figures and actual events makes it a better story than if the author had made everything up from her own imagination.

The Invention of Wings would make a great book club read. It is actually my group’s pick for this month, but I will miss the meeting, so this blog entry (almost finished with my first review–yay!) will have to be my substitute.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

  • My Rating: A-
    • memorable characters, exciting plotlines, great theme
    • some slow points
  • “Clean” Factor: B
    • a few “words” here and there
    • a vague bedroom scene or two
    • overall refreshingly decent
  • Book Clubishness:  A+
    • impressive discussion will ensue, I’m sure!
    • easy to read, and available through library for cheapskates like me
    • Oprah recommended it, and I usually find her choices worth a read

* * *

Yay! One down, at least 25 to go!

Happy reading,


(Photo Credit/Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Invention-Wings-Sue-Monk-Kidd/dp/0670024783/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421442748&sr=8-1&keywords=the+invention+of+wings&pebp=1421442758769&peasin=670024783)


4 thoughts on “#26-A Book Based on a True Story

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