The Invention of Wings is a book of fiction based on historical fact. It is a work of imagination in which the author enriches what we know about real people and events with the addition of fictional characters, details, and events. Historical novels are much like fantasy stories in that the author must create a world for the characters to live in and for the reader to believe in.
This particular novel tells the story of the Grimke Sisters of Charleston, two young women who made brave and unpopular choices and took serious risks as they spoke out against slavery and the treatment of women in the 19th century. It is told through two points of view: Sarah Grimke, daughter of a prominent judge, and Hetty (also known as Handful), a slave girl who is given to Sarah as a gift on Sarah’s 11th birthday. By piecing together the experiences and perspectives of these two characters, we learn quite a bit about life in the days of slavery, women’s lives, and the abolitionist movement as it was developing in the 1830s. Remember that the abolitionist effort was only completed with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution in 1865, and so the Grimkes were quite early in speaking out about this social system on which their family’s wealth and position were built.
Listed inside are some topics and questions to think about as you read. You may want to take some notes for use when you discuss the book with your advising group and a faculty/staff member.
Fact vs. Fiction
As you read, you may wonder which characters and events are based on factual knowledge and which are made up. If so, look at the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book. Sue Monk Kidd explains how she went about recording the truth while creating a complete and engaging story. If you have a Meredith Camcard, you can also access an encyclopedia entry about the Grimke sisters by searching "Grimke Sisters" in the Credo Reference field on the Carlyle Campbell Library website.
The “fiction” side of the story provides interesting details and creates character relationships that hold the story together and make us want to keep reading. Which of those details help you understand the world in which the novel is set? Which details surprise you the most about the life of the people at that time?
Families and Communities
The characters in the story all belong to some combination of family and community. The Grimke family, for instance, belongs to a certain social and economic class, the planter class. As a result, they live in an exclusive part of Charleston, they worship at a particular church, and they interact with a tight community of similar families. How would you describe the families and communities of the slaves, both inside and outside of the Grimke household? How are their families defined, and how do they function as a community of people in similar circumstances? Do they cooperate or compete, for instance? Are there indications of status and position within the slave community? Likewise, the Quakers whom Sarah and Angelina encounter in Philadelphia and New England have their own typical family units and communities. How are these families and their shared community similar to or different from those of the Grimke family and the South Carolina slaves?
Social and Political Activism
The novel shows us that from a very young age Sarah Grimke sensed the injustice of slavery and spoke out against it. What are some of the things she did as a girl and teenager that reflect her attitudes and beliefs? What difficult choices does she make as she pursues her passion for the abolitionist movement and women’s rights? What mistakes does she make? What kind of person does she become? What social/political issues of a similar magnitude affect the world today? What kinds of involvement and activism are needed to address these issues?
The characters in the novel develop relationships inside and outside of their families and communities. An important relationship develops between Sarah and Hetty/Handful, for instance. How would you describe this relationship? What other special or notable relationships develop? How do they contribute to conflicts? How do they enrich the story and our understanding of the issues?
In addition to character, plot, setting, and theme, literary works often include repeating ideas in the form of images, symbols, and language. The idea of wings and flying is a motif in this novel, and so is the presence of water. It is also possible that Sarah’s speech impediment contributes to the story, as it determines when she speaks and when she is silent. What other motifs can you locate? How do these motifs add dimension to the story and its characters?
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