Sue, Sarah, and Handful: Reviewing The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd, best known for her debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, has published her third novel, the acclaimed The Invention of Wings (2014).

Courtesy, Riffle Books
Courtesy, Riffle Books

My Review

A full-page spread advertising Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work of historical fiction recently appeared in the New Yorker, which tells readers something about the stature of this work. Set in Charleston, SC, the novelist creates parallel stories representing two strata of early nineteenth-century America, alternating chapters with the voices of two engaging characters: the aristocratic Sarah Grimke and the hand-maid (creative name for slave) assigned to her, Hetty Handful Grimke. Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. Over the next thirty-five years, both strive for a life of their own “forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love” as one reviewer characterizes it. Woven into the fabric of this novel is the alliance of the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who advocate for the equality of slaves and the rights of women.

While the unfolding plot intertwines other historical figures, both factual and imagined, Kidd held my attention with her metaphors and other descriptions. I was particularly intrigued with the exquisite quilts Handful’s cunning mother Charlotte fabricated, often using the image of blackbird wings as a triangular motif in the design. In the acknowledgements section, the author mentions too her reference to the American black folktale, from which she drew inspiration about “people in Africa being able to fly and then losing their wings when captured into slavery.”

The two main characters in this book effectively invent their own wings, Sarah by tirelessly advocating for human rights and Handful by staging her own escape to freedom. Her often repeated refrain:

If you don’t know where you came from, you have to know where you’re going.

That's one determined woman
Sarah Grimke, one determined woman



Have a look at some of handmaid Hetty’s exquisite quilts on this website. Possibly the best seamstress in Charleston, the quilting of Hetty and her mother Charlotte offered her freedom spiritually as she recorded her family’s history, and freedom physically too by enabling her to fashion a disguise that may have enabled her to escape.

Q & A with the Author

Website: Sue Monk Kidd
Website: Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd has created an intriguing story from mountains of research including historical dates and events, articles, letters, all inspired by viewing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party referred to in my last post.

See the intriguing Q & A with Sue Monk Kidd, who observed separate water fountains, black women sitting in the backseats of white women’s limousines, and the story of Rosa Parks in her own youth.

  • How could the author visualize Hetty so vividly?
  • How is Hetty or Sarah like Lily in The Secret Life of Bees?
  • How could Sue recreate the dialect of 19th-century Charleston on paper?

Your turn!

Sue Monk Kidd was published first in Guideposts and Readers’ Digest. Do you remember her writing from back then?

Can you relate to any of the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s writings? 





27 thoughts on “Sue, Sarah, and Handful: Reviewing The Invention of Wings

  1. This is definitely a book I’ve been meaning to read. I love the quilts, and the imagery in them. My husband’s grandmother made quilts–many, many quilts. They were beautiful, and she was a perfectionist about the stitching, but I don’t think they were creative in this way.

    I remember reading historian Gerda Lerner’s work on the Grimke sisters long ago, and I had some cassette tapes (grin) of her lectures, too.


    1. My daughter-in-law’s mother is into designing quilts and quilting but I don’t think many women in our generation are carrying on this tradition. Quilts as story is a new concept to me too.

      Merril, as a widely read historian, you have a leg up on most readers about Sarah and Angelina Grimke. I had not heard of them until I read this book. But I have heard of cassette tapes – ha!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loving Charleston and the south, you’ve hooked me. I must read this! Too seldom do I choose what I want to read–I come across books in a Little Free Library, or those sent me to review (such as my post today) or those I must read for work. I know I will enjoy this book so thanks for the tip and the interesting tie to your previous post. Connections!


    1. I had wanted to read this book, so when I visited MOCA downtown and saw all of this art by women, I knew I had to connect the dots of art, books, and characters. Voila – two posts! Thanks for noticing, Melodie.


  3. Marion — yes, Yes, YES indeed. And while THE INVENTION OF WINGS has been on my to-read list, your exquisite review (which reeled me in hook, line, and sinker!) made me skootch it much closer to the top.


    1. Someone should be able to bottle your enthusiasm – wowsie, Laurie.

      If you’ve read the Secret Life of Bees, this one adds a fascinating, historical layer. Let me know what you think of the book too and you can add your comment. Thanks, loads!


  4. Top of the list of fave books is ‘The Secret Life Of Bees’. I was moving home when I started ‘Invention Of Wings’ and I couldn’t get into it. I will try again.
    My Sister makes patchwork quilts; they are gorgeous. She goes to a craft group in South Wales where all ladies do some fab work. So it’s still popular over here.


    1. You are proof that SMK’s work has an international appeal. Of course it does; its themes are universal. I’m also happy to hear that quilting is alive and well in England and Wales, Cherry.


  5. I’ve heard so many people rave about this book. I must read it. I loved the Grimké sisters when I studied them in graduate school. I loved the Secret Life of Bees. Among other talents, SMK has a real talent for titles, doesn’t she?


    1. You focused more on American literature, I believe, while I had my nose in Brit lit. Maybe that explains why I had not heard of these fireballs before. The Secret Life of Bees was made into a movie. I wonder if The Invention of Wings will follow suit. We shall see.

      Thank you for stopping by today. Soon you will be warming up in Florida. Right?


  6. Thank you for this review, Marian. Another “to read” book already on my too long list. And I loved seeing Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. I saw it at the Brooklyn Museum after spending the morning in the Egyptian galleries there. What a day!


    1. I know I’ll have the same response when I get back to NYC one day. “The Dinner Party” would have special meaning for me now couched in a new context. Elaine – thanks for adding to the conversation!


    1. You will be rewarded to insight about what happened in that century in both British and American history. The author has a knack from pulling out the humanity in these historical characters. The alternating voices from chapter to chapter make it especially captivating. Thanks for commenting, Marie.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank you for commenting, Christy. SMK admits that she has woven a fictional narrative out of historical research, but it rings so loudly of authenticity I couldn’t forgive her if she hadn’t written it. (That last sentence doesn’t make perfect sense, but it does say what I mean!)


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