The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
This is the story of two nineteenth century women, one black, one white, each struggling in their own way to find the freedom denied them by their time and culture. The narrative alternates between the two vibrant characters, Sarah and Hetty, who grew up together, one a slave, the other a slave owner's daughter. Their struggles are very different, but each longs for a life without constraints and both eventually find the courage to take the dangerous paths that will lead them there. Neither were born with the wings of freedom, so they had to invent them for themselves, each finding their own individual way.
The book covers a span of 35 years. At her 11th birthday party, Sarah is presented with Hetty as a gift. Even at that young age, Sarah feels the evil in the concept of one human being owning another and she refuses the gift. That is the beginning of a lifelong struggle against her mother's societal edicts.
Sarah and Hetty develop a close friendship in the innocence of childhood, but as the years begin to reveal the vast chasm between them, they grow apart. I thought the author did a good job of telling their separate stories, even when their lives became separated by distance as well as circumstances. The bond formed in childhood stays alive even when they are worlds apart and have no idea what is going on in the other's life. Later, in their attempts to create meaningful lives for themselves, they are drawn together again to stand in even greater solidarity as adults.
Our book club discussed this one last week and we all felt awkward talking about the freedom denied to a slave in the same breath as that denied to a white woman. No one wanted to equate the struggles, or deny either one, and I don't believe the author is implying those two forms of repression were equal. She is simply telling the story of two women who were, in vastly different ways, denied their freedom.
I don't know what it is to be a slave or what it is to be a wealthy slave owner. I do know what it is to have my thoughts and opinions dismissed as trivial based solely on the fact that I'm a woman. Also, pain, loneliness and hopelessness are common to all human beings and I could empathize with those things. I could only be horrified at some of the other aspects of their lives. At times it was heartbreaking; sometimes at the end of a line I'd have to stop for a moment till I could cope with the inhumanity I'd just read.
With both women's stories, the author was able to avoid cliches and trite sentimentality and she thankfully stayed away from sensationalism. There were cruel punishments dealt out to people and those things were openly described, but not dwelt on to make them the focus of the story. The focus was the fight for freedom in the lives of these two women who had very little influence on anything around them. These characters felt very real, and in fact are based on real people. Several of the characters in the novel are actual historical figures.
This is an excellent book, most definitely worth your time and effort.