It took Sue Monk Kidd four years to write her sweeping new novel, The Invention of Wings. When the book was finally finished, the last thing she wanted to think about was starting a new project, so she and her husband took a getaway river cruise from Berlin to Prague.
āMy husbandās from Mississippi, so [river cruising] is his favorite thing to do,ā Kidd says by phone in her slow Southern drawl. āBut itās very hard to turn off the writer brain. I tell myself Iām not looking for an idea. Please, Sue, no ideas.ā
But while she was traveling in Europe, she toured a concentration camp. āIt was an overwhelmingly emotional experience for me,ā she recalls. āI felt a couple of writer antennae go up, and I thought, oh no! Tap those down. Itās important to have fallow time.ā
Kidd certainly deserves downtime after finishing her latest novel, which is based on a pair of real-life abolitionist sisters who lived in 19th-century Charleston. Writing about real peopleāalbeit in fictionāwas a demanding task.
āItās certainly a challenge to write from a place where history and imagination intersect, as I found out,ā Kidd says. āIt became part of my challenge: I wanted to do them justice and have their history all there. At the same time, Iām a novelist. Iām not a historian, Iām not a biographer. I had to serve the story first.ā
An exquisitely told tale of loss and triumph, The Invention of Wings is based on the real lives of Sarah and Angelina (Nina) GrimkĆ©, unconventional women who broke from their high-society family to fight against slavery and for womenās rights. Kidd first learned about these radical but largely forgotten sisters at an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.
Sarah is plain but smart, and she realizes from a young age that her dream of becoming a lawyer like her father is impossible; society judged her success simply on whether she could avoid spinsterhood. Angelina is beautiful and could have her choice of Charleston bachelors, but like her older sister, she has no interest in traditional roles.
When Sarah turns 11, her mother gives her a 10-year-old slave as a gift. Even at that age, Sarah knows she shouldnāt own Hetty, or āHandfulā as everyone in the house calls her. Handfulās mother makes Sarah secretly promise that sheāll free Handful as soon as she can. In many ways, Sarah spends the rest of her life trying to keep that promise: Sarah and Handful become friends, and Sarah breaks the law by teaching her to read and write. The book follows their complicated friendship over more than three decades, as well as the attempts by all three women to make their way in a world that has already defined their path.
While historical records mention that Sarah GrimkĆ© had a slave, there is not much more known about her. This is where Kidd let her imagination go.
āHistorical accuracy mattered a great deal to me,ā she says. āI used it as scaffolding. I followed the truth as close as I possibly could, but I also invented a lot to bring them alive on the page. I went to their house [in Charleston]. I walked up and down the streets I thought theyād have walked. When I saw the stairway leading up to the upper floors, I could picture Sarah walking down. I could picture Handful sitting on one of the steps.ā
In the end, it was easier for Kidd to fully realize Handful on the page. āHandful came alive much more easily than Sarah did,ā she says. āThat was a surprise to me. I tried to write her in third person, but it just didnāt workāshe wanted to talk! She didnāt come with that heavy historical script that I had to be faithful to with Sarah and Nina. I could just let go.ā
Kidd, who was raised in Georgia and remembers seeing the Ku Klux Klan in her hometown, says she relied on āvoices from my childhoodā to write from Handfulās viewpoint.
āI think you have to love your characters, and I just loved her,ā Kidd says. āShe started talking and talking and talking. I could not keep up with her. There was this unleashing of a characterās voice. I came of age in the ā60sāone of those baby boomers. I remember so much of that whole Civil Rights timeāit was the background I lived in. It made a mark on me. Their voices stayed with meāthe musicality and some of their expressions.ā
After growing up in the pre-feminist South, Kidd was drawn to explorations of a womanās place in society. This theme runs through much of her work, including her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002), and its follow-up, The Mermaid Chair (2005). Kidd realized tremendous success with both: Millions of copies of her novels are in print in nearly 40 languages. In some ways, she still sounds amazed by that success.
āItās been such a surprising part of my life,ā she says. āThe Secret Life of BeesāI donāt think Iāve ever been more floored by anything. It took a while to wrap my head around it. It seemed like the success belonged to someone else. Did I really deserve all that? But mostly, to be honest, itās been pure gratitude that someone wants to read my work and that youāre able to get your stories into the world.
āI felt some pressure after The Secret Life of Bees to produce something beyond myself. But Iād do it again, believe me! Itās been a wonderful and wondrous experience, but itās not a pure experience. It has its nuances.ā
Kidd isnāt the only writer in her family. Her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, also caught the writing bug.
āI sort of knew when she was young that she was a writerāshe had all the little signs,ā Kidd says with a hint of pride in her voice. āShe reminded me of myself. Sheād graduated from college, and I was turning 50. She was really searching for what she was going to do with her life, and the truth was, I was, too. I was trying to find the courage to write fiction. I told her later, āI knew you were a writer! But I didnāt want to step in there and influence that.ā She had to come to that herself.ā
During their search, mother and daughter traveled together to ancient sites in Greece and France. They chronicled their explorations in Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story (2009), which Kidd counts as one of her favorite writing experiences.
After becoming empty nesters, Kidd and her husband moved from Charleston to the Florida coast, downsizing from two homes to one.
āYou get to a certain place in life and want to simplify,ā she says. āWe finally took Thoreauās advice and simplified.ā
Judging by the breathtaking photos she regularly Tweets of the ocean view from her home, itās a wonder she ever gets any work done.
āItās kind of muse-like; itās beautiful,ā she says. āBeauty is good for the soul. I open the study door, and the rhythm of the waves in the room is soothing. But I get so immersed that I disappear in my work.ā
A self-proclaimed introvert, Kidd is preparing to emerge from her cocoon to promote The Invention of Wings. A planned two-month tour will include stops at libraries and bookstores in 19 states., with a Canadian tour also on the horizon.
āI love my solitude, and I love my anonymity,ā she says. āBut itās great meeting my readers. I need that. I retreated into the world of the 19th century for four years. I told my friend I felt like I was living in a cave in Afghanistan! Iām eager to start a conversation with the reader.āCopyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.
In the antebellum South, ten-year-old slave Hetty "Handful" Grimke is given to Sarah Grimke (a real-life figure) on Sarah's 11th birthday. Over the next 35 years, Handful suffers loss but finds herself, while Sarah breaks away from her wealthy Charleston family to join the abolitionist and women's rights movements with her sister. With a 15-city tour; Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees lasted on the New York Times trade paperback best sellers list for more than 220 weeks, so expect big demand.[Page 54]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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[Page 78]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC