I will admit when I am wrong (at least most of the time). And this is one of those times. When I first saw early press releases for The Invention of Wings—famous spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd’s latest work—I could not help but roll my eyes. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely loved Dance of the Dissident Daughter and Travelling with Pomegranates, and enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees. But at first glance, this looked like another work in the white girl finding herself while helping black people in the process genre. You may know of this genre: the film The Help is the first that springs to mind, but the aforementioned The Secret Life of Bees is another example.
The basic premise: a white girl is feeling oppressed. In her journey to define herself, she interacts with oppressed black people who teach her their wisdom. At the end of the story, white girl helps black people overcome their oppression and, in the process, overcomes her own. In the film adaption of The Help (I have not read the novel, so I cannot say anything about that), Skeeter is an aspiring writer who befriends Aibileen and Minny, two black maids serving in white houses in the early 1960s south. After hearing their stories, Skeeter writes a book chronicling their experiences. The book becomes popular and the money is split with the help, allowing them greater mobility in society, and also helps Skeeter prove to herself and her family her ability as a writer.
This trope is often called “White Man’s Burden,” and is exhibited in other films like The Blind Side and The Soloist, and has many parallels with “The Mighty Whitey” trope (Avatar, Dances with Wolves, etc.). From the explanation on tvtropes.org:
“This trope is about a plot where an ordinary, ethnically-European (white) person meets an underprivileged non-ethnic-Euro character. Taking pity on the other character's plight, they selflessly volunteer themselves as the other's tutor, mentor, or caretaker to make things better…. The white character is the one who gets all the Character Development while the minority character's main purpose will be to advance that character development. The focus of this plot will be on the white character's saintliness rather than the minority character's journey.”
This is a problematic trope for many reasons. For one, the black characters are generally foils to the main white character. Secondly, the black characters have no capacity to free themselves and are underprivileged; it is only with the benevolent help of the white (main) character that they are able to achieve freedom, social mobility, or whatever. Furthermore, the white person generally has little to do to adapt to the black person’s culture, whereas the black person is forced or helped to integrate into white culture. And, the trope focuses on the white person’s guilt and self-pitying over the whole affair. I could rant about this obnoxious trope all day but I’m stopping myself. This is a review about The Invention of Wings after all. Not The Help.
Anyway, I bring up the White Man’s Burden tope because The Invention of Wings is so not that! I was legitimately surprised. First, the plot focuses on two main characters: the historical Sarah Grimké and the fictional Hattie “Handful” Grimké. Set in antebellum South, Sarah is given a slave—Hattie—for a present on her 11th birthday. Sarah vows to free Hattie in any way possible, but is unable to do so before she leaves for Philadelphia. The story chronicles their lives through several decades, following Sarah’s history as an outspoken abolitionist and woman’s rights activist and Hattie’s life as a chattel slave in Charleston, South Carolina. What makes this story unique is that both Handful and Sarah are given equal time in the book, as the novel alternates first-person narratives of the two characters. Rather than Handful being a foil to Sarah, and rather than Sarah being the architect of Handful’s freedom from slavery, the novel instead looks at both people’s stories. Yes, it does have a load of White Man’s Burden—Sarah is consumed with guilt over slavery and is outspoken on behalf of the slaves. Sarah is a person of privilege, a rich daughter of a lawyer, and her primary story arc is one of self-discovery. But, Handful is also a character in her own right—she has her own hopes and dreams, she is given her own voice, and, without revealing the end, Handful’s “Invention of Wings” is her own doing, and that of her black mother’s and black sister’s, not Sarah’s.
The story really is about the invention of wings—as both Sarah and Handful seek wings to free them from the oppression of their time. It’s not a perfect novel (is there such a thing?), but it is an excellent and surprising read, and perhaps one of my favorite works by Sue Monk Kidd. The novel takes some historical liberties, which Kidd explains in the afterward of her book, and they do make sense and help build a compelling tale. Kidd’s writing has certainly evolved since her more devotional nonfiction days, and even one can see a progression between this her third novel and her first, The Secret Life of Bees.
I think that given time this novel has the potential to be a classic in American fiction. It is one of the few books written by a white person dealing with themes of racism, civil rights, and empowerment not to fall into the aforementioned tropes. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and heartwarming. It can be a little too sweet in its discussion of empowerment, but not as cringe worthy as others in the genre.
Kidd said herself that she erred on the side of being too bold in the inclusion of Hattie’s tale, but I think she made the right choice. The book is unique, powerful, and imaginative, a welcome addition to my book shelf, at very least. Well done, Sue Monk Kidd! We needed this kind of book.