Unlikely alliances are a staple of fiction, and the unlikelier the better, from Huck and Jim floating down the Mississippi to Frodo and Gollum creeping toward Mordor — because the real drama lies in watching how dissimilar characters turn out to be brothers (or sisters) under the skin. Sue Monk Kidd followed this principle in her best-selling first novel, “The Secret Life of Bees,” in which a 14-year-old white girl and her family’s black servant join in fleeing abuse in the South Carolina of the civil rights era. Kidd’s latest novel, “The Invention of Wings,” also set largely in South Carolina, involves another unusual duo, in this case a slave and a daughter of the family that owns her.
The story begins in Charleston in 1803 on the day 11-year-old Sarah Grimké is given Hetty, or “Handful,” roughly her same age, as a birthday present. A born abolitionist whose earliest memory is of witnessing a slave being whipped (a trauma that’s responsible for the stammer that still afflicts her), Sarah immediately tries to “return” Handful. When this attempt fails, she writes an official “certificate of manumission,” which is promptly torn in two. Although Handful has to serve as Sarah’s personal maidservant, the girls share confidences and even an illicit picnic on the roof. Sarah also teaches Handful to read and write, an infraction that results in harsh penalties for both.
To her credit, Kidd doesn’t insist on a close friendship between these characters. They like each other, but uneasily, Sarah out of guilt and Handful because she knows she’s listed on a household inventory “right after the water trough, the wheelbarrow, the claw hammer and the bushel of flint corn.” Instead, through alternating chapters narrated by Sarah and Handful, spanning 35 years, the novel juxtaposes their experiences of oppression. Plain but studious Sarah reads Voltaire, studies Latin with an older brother and dreams of becoming the first female jurist. But when she reveals this ambition to her father, a judge, he declares angrily that she’s speaking “nonsense.” Her mother later tells her that “every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good” and forces her to start husband-hunting.
Meanwhile, Handful’s mother, Charlotte, a rebellious and talented seamstress, makes a “story quilt” detailing the history of their bondage, beginning with the kidnapping of Handful’s “granny-mauma” in Africa. Early on, Charlotte is also hideously punished for stealing a bolt of cloth. Naturally, Handful distrusts all white people, even the painfully well-meaning Sarah, and soon turns rebellious herself. The truly harrowing moments in the book all belong to her and, inevitably, so does the larger share of the reader’s sympathy.
Yet, as the novel’s title suggests, the desire for freedom inspires both heroines to defy their restrictions — one overtly, the other covertly. The first scene opens with Charlotte telling Handful that long ago “in Africa the people could fly.” She then pats the child’s shoulder blades, assuring her: “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.” That Handful and Sarah both take flight by the end of the novel is not perhaps very surprising.
What might be surprising, for some readers, is to learn that Sarah Grimké is a historical figure, an energetic abolitionist from a slaveholding Charleston family. After moving to Philadelphia and becoming a Quaker, she began speaking publicly against slavery and crusading for women’s rights. With her sister, Angelina, and Angelina’s husband, Theodore Weld, she wrote “American Slavery as It Is,” a “testimony of a thousand witnesses” that influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published 13 years later.Continue reading the main story
Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films Acquires Film Rights To 'The Invention of Wings' by Sue Monk Kidd
Well, we did wonder if this would happen, when, in December, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, O, The Oprah Magazine and Oprah.com announced the newest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.
It’s no longer speculation because Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films announced today that it has acquired the film rights to the The Invention of Wings.
The book debuted in January at #1 on the New York TimesBestsellers List.
“In her book, Sue Monk Kidd has given us such a rich narrative, compelling characters, and a rare historical perspective that we know will be the ideal foundation for a wonderful film,” said Oprah Winfrey.
Here’s a synopsis:
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 slave Hetty, 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, Hetty 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 as one of the early pioneers in the drive to abolish slavery.
An exclusive interview with Oprah and Kidd will be broadcast on Super Soul Sunday, on April 13 at 11am ET/PT on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.
It’s the right time for since its subject matter suits current film trends. And by that I mean the novel is set in the early 19th century USA and is centered around the life of a slave, at least in part.
By the way, Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which became a feature film in 2008, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, produced by Will Smith, with Jada Pinkett Smith as executive producer, and starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys and Dakota Fanning.