First-year students and other Meredith community members attended this year’s Summer Reading Program lecture, “Now Let Me Fly”: Academic Perspectives on The Invention of Wings,” in Jones Auditorium on September 2, 2014.
The Invention of Wings, a historical fiction novel written by Sue Monk Kidd, tells the story of the Grimké sisters, who were abolitionists and supporters of women’s rights in 1830s. It is richly descriptive, and the alternating narrators – Sarah Grimké and a young slave girl called “Handful” – offer thought-provoking perspectives on daily life and issues of the time.
In addition to being a compelling read, the novel also raises issues and questions that touch upon several academic disciplines. As such, this year’s lecture featured four Meredith faculty members who participated in a panel discussion of the book in relation to their fields of study.
Associate Professor of History Dan Fountain moderated the discussion and brought historical perspectives to the conversation. Fountain praised the book’s accurate and unflinching description of slavery, noting that it is a “real, ugly part of history.”
“We still deal with the reality and legacy of slavery,” said Fountain. “It’s important to delve into.”
Assistant Professor of History Angela Marritt spoke about class, labor, and women’s issues, during both the 1830s and present day. For Marritt, the relationship between Sarah Grimké and her father rang true, especially with regard to Sarah’s education.
Marritt said during that time period, fathers had to tell their daughters that they couldn’t receive the same education as their sons. Instead, women were expected to engage in “polite education for the female mind” and prepare for marriage.
Professor of Human Environmental Sciences Diane Ellis commented on the value placed on slaves like Handful, and her mother, Charlotte, who served the Grimké household as seamstresses. The auditorium’s stage was decorated with examples of period costumes like those described in the book, including Mrs. Grimké’s mourning dress and Angelina’s wedding gown.
Ellis shared some ways in which history differs from the book. Typically, slaves with the sewing skills depicted in the book were not permitted to leave the master’s property out of fear of other slave owners getting a hold of the slaves’ talents or designs.
Associate Professor of English Alisa Johnson used her expertise in African-American literature and culture to interpret the book.
“Do the characters seem real?” Johnson asked the crowd. “If the answer is yes, we have a book we can learn from. When it comes to books that deal with slavery that’s a challenge.”
Johnson applauded Kidd’s choice to use two narrators to tell the story. “It’s a great gift on the part of the author that she gives us two parallel stories that are connected physically and emotionally,” she said.
She also recognized that there are portions of the book that are difficult to read, but said that one of the benefits of good literature is that it doesn’t have to show characters doing what readers would like them to do.
“Literature has the advantage in that it engages the senses,” said Johnson. “It gives us a way in which we can travel back in time.”
Because of the book’s classification as historical fiction and Kidd’s acknowledgement that the work is “a thickly imagined story inspired by [Sarah Grimké’s] life,” Marritt cautioned the audience to “be aware of the liberties taken.”
“It’s a piece of fiction,” she said. “Be careful how much history you think you can get from it. You have to balance what we can learn and use from the book with solid history and facts.”
Each of the panelists hoped the students would be inspired by the boldness demonstrated by both Sarah and Handful, and challenged the audience to use the examples from the book to help them make choices that allow them to stay true to themselves.
In addition to the panel discussion, Meredith students also had the opportunity to explore The Invention of Wings during small group discussions, and to participate in a service project related to the book’s themes.