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The Invention of Wings

Did you like The Secret Life of Bees? I did. So I was delighted to pick up Sue Monk Kidd’s newest book, The Invention of Wings.


Once again, Monk Kidd focuses on Southern women, both white and black, and the ways in which they interact and relate. Here, though, she writes in two different voices: Handful, a slave, and Sarah, the wealthy girl who’s presented with Handful as a gift for her eleventh birthday. And, yes, it’s written so that you shudder at the idea of one human being given as a gift to another.


I found, oddly enough given that the author is a white woman, that the character of Handful came alive for me more than that of Sarah. Her voice seemed more authentic, and more engaging.

cover of The Invention of Wings

Yet as it turns out, Handful is largely a fictional character while Sarah Grimké actually lived. The real Handful (Hetty) died in childhood while Sarah went on to become a famous (infamous at the time) abolitionist and early feminist. I expected to care for Sarah a great deal more than I did, given her courage, intelligence and ethics, but as she’s drawn here, I found her a character that’s hard to warm up to.


Nonetheless, why had I never heard of her, or her sister Angelina, before? These two women moved north from Charleston, South Carolina where their family owned a plantation worked by slaves, to Philadelphia. They became Quakers and then toured the Northern states proclaiming against the slavery of Africans and their descendants, and the virtual slavery of women.


Read the book. It’s worth getting to know Handful and her proud, brave mother. Then read some more about the two amazing Grimké sisters, a fascinating part of history of which you, too, may have been deprived.


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Summer Reading

Light is the word here. I enjoy light reading. Not as a steady diet, but it’s refreshing in between heavier stuff. So here are some of my hitherto-secret vices. Enjoy, and let us all know what you think of any you read. Also add your own suggestions to the list!


I confess that poorly drawn or insignificant female characters infuriate me. You may guess from this that I like strong female leads and you may also have discovered, as have I, that it’s not so easy to find them. It’s a lot easier than 20 years ago, but still. Here are some authors and characters I’ve taken to.

Denise Mina. I really like this Scottish author who writes about Paddy Meehan, a smart, wise-mouthed reporter from a large Catholic family in Glasgow who struggles with her weight and with making it in a male-dominated field. The style is realistic, gritty and the books are filled with believable characters. I’ve read Garnet Hill, Field of Blood and Slip of the Knife and am forcing myself to slow down so the few remaining I can savor.

Janet Evanovich. There should be a separate category of “ultra-light” for these books in the numbered series that starts with One for the Money. A new one comes out each summer and, yes, my daughter and I have read them all. The first half-dozen or so are laugh-aloud funny, featuring Stephanie Plum, bail bondswoman from Jersey who has a former prostitute for a side kick, a gun-toting granny and a hilarious assortment of characters including cross-dressers, stoners and gangsters who mess up her life.

Batya Gur. Unfortunately, this wonderful Israeli author died too young so there won’t be any more of her thick books that always teach you a lot about something: the world of star cellists, life on a kibbutz, a psychiatric institute in Israel. The protagonist here is male, an intellectual head cop, with sexist other male cops, but even so the writing is so good I’ve read all her six books.

Laurie King. This author writes two series, one set in San Francisco, which I’ve read one or two of and don’t find strong or captivating, but I’m a big fan of the series about Mary Russell, the brilliant young religious scholar who eventually becomes Sherlock Holmes’ partner in all senses of the word. If you can, read them in order; the series starts with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all but one of these, The Game, which “jumped the shark.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s a film expression that means a film/show has leapt from the bounds of the credible and gone over the top.)

Jacqueline Winspear. Her series about Maisie Dobbs, a working class young woman who receives the gifts of education and apprenticeship that help her set up her own investigative agency to apply psychological insight to the task of solving insolvable cases. It takes place just after World War I in England, a tough time indeed. It’s hard to put my finger on why I like these books. They don’t have much action and the pace is always slow. The atmosphere is very British and there’s something ultimately calming about them and also rewarding because Maisie works hard, never forgets her roots or her obligations, fights her own internal demons and wins. It’s good to read these in order, too. The first is Maisie Dobbs.

Science Fiction

I’ve been reading science fiction on and off for decades. I like all kinds and varieties but particularly futuristic ones where someone has imagined a different world and different ways for women, or female beings not necessarily human, to be in that world.

Having read hundreds of authors in the field, allow me to share with you my favorite science fiction author of all time: C. J. Cherryh. She’s written over 60 novels (yes, 60!) and won three Hugo awards. By all rights, she should have won at least a dozen more Hugos and numerous other awards, but she began writing in the 1970s when publishers (mostly male) believed sci-fi readers (mostly male) wouldn’t read a woman author (hence her use of initials) and didn’t give enough credit to her genius. Even now she doesn’t get her just due.

The woman is brilliant. She’s written in every genre of science fiction there is and creates entire universes with different series in different sectors of them. I mean, really. No other author has been so bold, so imaginative with so large a vision.

If you like advanced technological worlds, read her Cyteen series that deals with cloning and regeneration and all the complications of economics and government and morals. If you like space-faring wild cat-type people where all the ship captains and crew are female and the men stay home with the children, read the Chanur novels.

Should you prefer long ago worlds where people rode horses and there were brave, lonely mercenaries try The Morgaine Cycle books where such a mercenary (male) follows the mysterious and tormented Morgaine through gates to different worlds on a quest to save everyone.

For different species, check out The Faded Sun novels for a desert planet and people who have become homeless. They must figure out how to deal with a human male who shows up in their midst and he must learn their ways.

Carolyn Cherryh can write anything, and indeed has done fantasy as well, with the saga of Jones, a smart, tough river-boating woman who saves an upper class guy from drowning and creates an uneasy alliance with him, filled with intrigue. This series is called Merovingen Nights. I want to adopt Jones. Or have her adopt me.

Anyway, this list doesn’t cover all the worlds and species and economies and governing structures C.J. Cherryh has created, but there are more on her website.

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Take Me Away

I recently started a book—I won’t tell you yet which one—chosen by a book group. The work was non-fiction, a history/biography kind of book and it was fat with small print. Generally, I prefer fiction, so I came to this tome with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But as I read the introduction, the author made me believe I was in such capable hands that I continued on to Chapter 1, no longer dutiful but eager.

What I want to discuss is: how did she do that? As a writer, I want to do it, too. I want my readers to settle back, kick off their suspicions and wariness like old shoes, let go their outer world and travel off with me into the written world.

The Words

To put it briefly, I liked the writing. After a dozen pages, of it, I’d been delighted by its clarity—despite its complexity—and surprised, too, by nice turn of phrases. Here’s a sentence in the Preface that pleased me:

We must, and will, pay attention to them,
but they were only part of a much larger family story.

It was the “and will” that made me smile, especially after such a strong verb as “must.” Not only did the sentence sound strong, it sounded like a promise: we will do what is needful in this book; we will do what is right. I felt as if I could hear the author’s voice in my ear, a voice I began to trust with that one felicitous sentence.

Another sentence appealed to me, this one in the Introduction:

The numbers told a story, but in the detached
and steely way that numbers tend to do.

The phrase “detached and steely” caught my fancy. I stopped for a fraction of a moment to run the word “steely” over my tongue and to picture steely blue-silver numbers.

Frankly, this is the kind of word-tasting I hope readers of my own book will one day do.

Voice and Style

I’m not sure I can separate the choice of words and the sentence structure from the “voice,” nor am I sure that the former aren’t part of the latter. What I can say is that the writing, via the sentence about numbers, spoke directly to me the reader and I listened.

Despite the fact that my two samples are relatively short and straightforward, the sentences throughout the Preface and Introduction varied in length and structural complexity, forming a rhythm that was neither too staccato (too many short sentences together) nor too legato (too many lengthy sentences with clauses and sub-clauses.)

Furthermore, she mixed ideas that were relatively obvious with some that required thought on my part. I stopped to consider several times as I read along: did I agree with her? Had she omitted a piece of the analytical puzzle? None of the thinking was terribly heavy lifting, but my mind was engaged. And where the mind goes, so goes the reader.

Okay, I (subconsciously) said to myself. This author knows what she’s doing; she knows how to write. Good. I’ll keep reading.

The Tone

Some historical treatises sound academic, even preachy or, worse yet, full of themselves and how brilliant they are for knowing all the facts they know.

Not so this book. Right away, in the Preface, the author tells us that as she finally holds in her hands the original 18th century source document whose passages she already knows by heart, she is, nonetheless, “completely overwhelmed. For a time I simply could not continue.”

Her words made me imagine her in a library chair, little old book in hand, maybe crying, utterly still. I related to her on a human level. This was an author with emotions. Showing her emotion to me made me trust her more, since I, along with every other reader, know that authors who pretend to have no feelings about what they write are frauds.

black woman strong face looking to right

On the same page she talks about reading this source material that documents which slaves got food or clothing and how much of each and how she thought of the man writing and making these decisions: “Just who do you think you are?

That was another place I stopped to ponder, this time about the author herself. As an African-American woman, how much more deeply might she feel this sense of outrage than I, a white woman,  on reading the same passage. I thought about how hard it might have been for her, emotionally, to do the research this book required and how she must have labored to bring all her work to light. And how important she had to think it was to do so.

By this point in the book, still subconsciously, I’m fully on the author’s side. She has become a sympathetic figure to me. She’s working hard at something that can’t be easy for her because she thinks it’s important work to do. She’s got a personal stake in this book, it means something to her, all of which brings me to invest myself in the book, too.

Authorial Attitude

The book explores the lives of a family of African slaves brought to America and, as I’ve said, it’s written by a black woman. Without even realizing it, I’m a little hesitant. I expect to hear a lot about white supremacy in a righteously angry voice and I expect to feel both an outsider, one of them, and guilty as charged.

The author disarms me in the Introduction by acknowledging that more is known about one family of slaves than “the vast majority of freeborn white Virginians of the time,” simply because this family was related to a famous white man. Huh.

Later on, she discusses how white folks of the time tended to believe that slaves with some white blood (as if blood came in different colors) were more worthy of help because they were “naturally” smarter and looked more like white people. “That is one way prejudice works,” the author writes and another part of my inner tension lets go. This author doesn’t take the opportunity to grind an axe. No matter what she may feel upon occasion, when she sets her final words on the page, they are balanced, educational in tone and fair-minded.

On the first page of Chapter 1, she demonstrates again that she takes a wide view of history by including the effects of sexism upon her female characters:

Most Americans today admit the existence of racism and sexism, even as we often disagree about examples of them.

I am, by now, completely at ease. She has avoided a trap that I see so many fall into these days—setting racism and sexism in opposition to each other, as if they do not spring from the same source, patriarchal attitudes in which white men reside at the top of the cultural pyramid.

This is an author, I decide, who is knowledgeable, diligent, and fair. This is an author I can learn from, whom I trust to tell me the truth as she’s discovered it. And that, dear readers, is how she caught me in her capable hands and took me away on her private flight of writing.

Pile of stones with "trust" written on top one

Can you and I do the same? With some of Annette Gordon Reed’s tools in mind as they appear in her National Book Award winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello , I surely hope we will.