Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook, once assessed the value of reading as not just developing IQ, but developing HQ—the heart quotient. The desire to create bonds through reading drew me into the career path of librarianship 23 years ago, and I still delight in discovering books with memorable characters that connect readers to the human condition.
Here is a book that features memorable characters and, as I later discovered, a narrative infused with historic details. Sue Monk Kidd (author of Secret Life of Bees) wrote Invention of Wings after being inspired by the story of Sarah Grimke–a woman born into a wealthy slave-owning family from Charleston, South Carolina, but who later became a famous abolitionist along with her younger sister Angelina. The detail of Sarah’s life that sparked Sue Monk Kidd’s curiosity was that Sarah Grimke, at the age of 11, was given her own slave, a young girl named Hetty. The author created a beautiful story that imaginatively weaves the tale of the growing bond between Sarah and Hetty in alternating chapters, showing both the horrors of slavery and Sarah’s emerging desire to become an abolitionist. What saves this story from being an overly sentimental and sanitized depiction of slavery is a wealth of historic details that make the struggles and inner resolve of Hetty and her mother, mauma, so believable.
Author Sue Monk Kidd spoke at Nashville Public Library’s Salon@615 (Salon@615 is a literary endeavor of Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, and Parnassus Books—the independent book store started by author Ann Patchett). Sue Monk Kidd is an animated presenter, and in her selected readings from the book, one sensed the humor and pathos that shine in her believable characters. Below is a brief snapshot as Hetty relates what the plantation mistress (Missus) thinks of her compared to Miss Sarah’s estimation of Hetty:
Missus said I was the worst waiting maid in Charleston. She said,
“You are abysmal, Hetty, abysmal.”
I asked Miss Sarah what abysmal means and she said,
“Not quite up to standard.”
Uh huh. I could tell from missus’ face, there’s bad, there’s worse,
and after that comes abysmal.
That first week…I spilled lamp oil on the floor leaving a slick spot,
broke one of those porcelain vases, and fried a piece of Miss Sarah’s
red hair with a curling tong. Miss Sarah never tattled.
Hetty’s mother, mauma, is an expert seamstress, and she teaches Hetty her art. Both Hetty and her mother find making quilts as a way to tell their stories and preserve their hopes for a better life:
That summer, I turned eleven years, and mauma said the pallet I slept on upstairs
wasn’t fit for dog. We were supposed to be working on the next ration of slave clothes.
Every year the men got two brown shirts and two white, two pants, two vests.
Women got three dresses, our aprons, and a head scarf. Mauma said all that could wait.
She showed me how to cut black triangles each one big as the end of my thumb,
then we appliqued two hundred or more on red squares, a color mauma
called oxblood. We sewed on tiny circles of yellow for sun splatter, then cranked
down the quilt frame and pieced everything together. I hemmed on the homespun backing
…and cut a plug of my hair and plug of mauma’s and put them inside for charms.
As the reader connects to the lives of Sarah, Hetty, and mauma, historic details provide believable dramatic tension in the plot. After I finished reading Invention of Wings, I attended a workshop on “Slaves and Slaveholders” hosted by the Tennessee State Museum and Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS). I learned facts about slavery that reminded me of aspects of the novel Invention of Wings.
1) Slavery was based on economy. Slaves were assigned a monetary worth along with other possessions in ledger books. Below is a scene in which Hetty searches out the slave holder’s ledger book to discover her “price” as well as the price of her mauma so that they can plan to buy their freedom:
Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were
…the gold leaf mirror and…horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn’t believe this,
never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough,
some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. All that pride about what we were
worth left me then. For the first time I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was.
After a while, I went down to the cellar. When mauma saw my raw eyes, she said,
“Ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth.”
2) Slave holders used a “task system” to gain compliance from slaves. The threat of punishment was just one method used to control slaves; slave holders also used the task system to keep slaves compliant. In the task system, a slave completed a task agreed upon by the slave holder and with any “free time,” the slave was allowed to have independent time off or even hire themselves out for extra pay.
In the novel, both Hetty and mauma take advantage of their skills for sewing to hire themselves out and earn money to secret away as they plan to purchase their freedom. Time away from the plantation home also allows them opportunities to explore explosive ideas in the city of Charleston, such as plans for a slave rebellion.
3.) Slaves found subtle ways of rebellion to have a sense of freedom. Deliberately breaking a tool, feigning sickness, or religious gatherings to share songs and bible passages with promises of freedom were just some of the ways that slaves quietly rebelled from their owners and asserted their independence. In the novel, when mauma becomes lame through a brutal physical punishment, mauma plays up her lameness to convince Missus that she needs a place of her own on the ground floor to do her sewing. Missus gives her a room separate from the house, and mauma revels in setting up her independent room, free from the prying eyes of her mistress.
A final appealing aspect of reading Invention of Wings was that it is an Oprah 2.0 Book Club selection. Though I do not like reading e-books and seeing which passages someone else has marked as significant, Oprah’s annotations in the 2.0 version of Invention of Wings offered a legitimacy to Sue Monk Kidd’s characterizations of the black experience. Though Sue Monk Kidd is a white author, Oprah’s comments affirm that she found the characters of Hetty and mauma to be believable.
As I read the book, I was surprised that the most interesting characters, the characters that touched my heart, were those that were mainly fictional creations—Hetty and mauma. Sue Monk Kidd states in the book’s preface the following:
In writing The Invention of Wings, I was inspired by the words of Professor Julius Lester…
“History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart
and we repeat history until we are able to make another’s pain in the heart our own.”
Sue Monk Kidd successfully creates empathy by inventing characters that will make your heart soar. I invite you to consider entering the lives of Sarah, Hetty, and mauma by reading Invention of Wings.