Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Club: Discussion Questions-The Invention of Wings

I can’t believe how late I am with the June book club discussion post. Shame on me. I promise I’ve been reading like crazy but I’m so behind with blog posts in general that I’m scrapping July as a book club month. We’re 20 days into the July and it’s the middle of summer. I’m guessing that you’ve grabbed your own selection and are already deep into a good page turner that’s been with you poolside for a few weeks now.  I’ll post the August book in a couple of weeks. I PROMISE...I'm actually preparing the post now. In the meantime, here are the discussion questions for The Invention of Wings. Feel free to share your thoughts about the book in the Comments section or ask more questions! Also, SPOILER ALERT!! THIS POST DISCUSSES PARTS OF THE BOOK IN DEPTH AND MAY REVEAL KEY PLOT POINTS. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED. 

Discussion Questions

The title The Invention of Wings was one of the first inspirations that came to Sue Monk Kidd as she began the novel. Why is the title an apt one for Kidd’s novel? What are some of the ways that the author uses the imagery and symbolism of birds, wings, and flight?

Wings are a metaphor for freedom throughout the novel. They show up as blackbird wings in Handful’s life through her mother’s quilts and stories. They are a sign of freedom of the soul despite the restraint of their bodies through slavery. For Sarah, they show up in the fluidity of her speech in her mind and in the expansion she feels through education. She is restricted by the view of women’s place in society in her time and is given wings through religion, which eventually gives her purpose and a freedom/wings of her own.

What were the qualities in Handful that you most admired? As you read the novel, could you imagine yourself in her situation? How did Handful continue her relentless pursuit of self and freedom in the face of such a brutal system?

Absolutely. The courage she had initially came from her mother but after her mother’s disappearance, I think she found her courage through her desire for a better life. Her assistance with the rebellion, her determination to flee to freedom…even her pursuit of education despite getting caught and punished as a child were all inspiring. The relentless pursuit comes from the spirit of her grandmother and later, her mother, which was impressed upon her from the time she was old enough to understand.

After laying aside her aspirations to become a lawyer, Sarah remarks that the Graveyard of Failed Hopes is “an all-female establishment.” What makes her say so? What was your experience of reading Kidd’s portrayal of women’s lives in the nineteenth century?

At the time, I’m sure it felt that way. The world was an oyster for white males at the time—though professions may have been chosen for them based on social status (like Sarah’s brother who wanted to be a minister but was forced to become a lawyer). Women, however, were expected to be wives. All of their grooming—at least at the level of aristocracy Sarah grew up in—was geared towards finding an appropriate husband. Any dreams a woman may have had were cast aside as nonsense. I think Sarah’s remark sums up that situation quite nicely. It didn’t seem to her that men had any failed hopes because they were free to pursue what they wanted. The quote doesn’t factor in the plight of the slave, which eventually became part of her life’s work but I think it is appropriate. Reading about women’s lives in the nineteenth century was maddening and discouraging at the same time. It amazes me how women were marginalized and discouraged me that in present times, we still have so long to go. Yes, we can vote and work in our chosen professions but we still make less money on the dollar for the same jobs and we still are looked at as less capable of leadership. It’s a constant struggle that continues to evolve slowly all these years later.

In what ways does Sarah struggle against the dictates of her family, society and religion? Can you relate to her need to break away from the life she had in order to create a new and unknown life? What sort of risk and courage does this call for?

She fully struggles against all that her family stands for. From the beginning, she doesn’t fit in because of her looks and her speech impediment. While she wants to be loved, she knows its unlikely and when she is duped by the one serious male caller she had, she is heartbroken but not quite surprised. She expresses she should have known his love couldn’t have been real. She doesn’t want to own slaves and when it is forced upon her—despite her crafting a document freeing Handful—she buts the system by teaching Handful to read. She would never be allowed to be herself in that environment and so she chases a new life. It takes lots of courage to break away from the norms of your life and pursue the unknown but I imagine the story was the same for most abolishionists and women’s suffragists in that time. Arguably, however, taking the risk is worth it. It’s better than living a life where you’re drowning in beliefs that you don’t support.

How would you describe Sarah and Angelina’s unusual bond? Do you think either one of them could have accomplished what they did on their own? Have you known women who experienced this sort of relationship as sisters?

I don’t think their bond is unusual. My sister and I are seven years apart and there is a bit of a mother/daughter element to our relationship though it was stronger when she was younger.  I do think each of them could have accomplished a lot on their own but their power is in how they compliment each other. They stand out as a pair and Angelina can speak up where Sarah may struggle because of her speech impediment. I do think Sarah would have moved in the same direction even if she did it alone. Her passion was largely the result of her childhood and the way she was disregarded. I think it gave her more fervor. Angelina developed the same passion but I think it was initially developed because of her love for and dedication to Sarah.

Contrast Handful’s relationship with her mother with the relationship between Sarah and the elder Mary Grimké. How are the two younger women formed—and malformed—by their mothers?

I think both mothers have a firm view of what their daughters’ lives should be like but one mother (Charlotte) is working to break away from the norm—to make sure her daughter finds freedom. She grooms her from early on and teaches her the story of her past. She pushes in the message that her soul/spirit are not tied to her body through her quilts, stories and the spirit tree. It is a way to give her some freedom in the midst of the horribleness of slavery. It is that sense of spirit that comes to her when she is punished, beaten and sent to the grinding wheel. It is that same sense that gives Handful the strength to help with the slave rebellion. Her mom also pushes on Sarah to make sure Handful is freed one day.

Sarah’s mom is working to push Sarah into the normal box. She wants her to fall in line and be a typical aristocratic woman of the time—to be fine with slavery, to pursue marriage first and to be satisfied with that. When she isn’t, Mary searches for new ways to punish Sarah. While she became protective of Sarah at the end—when the Mayor told her Sarah wouldn’t be allowed into Charleston—she still wished she would have conformed to the Grimké way of life.

I’m not sure either woman was malformed. I think both Sarah and Handful found their wings despite the circumstances around them.

How does the spirit tree function in Handful’s life? What do you think of the rituals and meanings surrounding it?

I think the spirit tree is a way to remind Handful that her spirit can soar even if her body can’t. The wrapping of the string is almost like a binding of the harm that comes her way and a bold, bright statement for those looking on that her spirit shines through despite her circumstances. I think all of the rituals are a way to hold on to her history and after Charlotte disappears, to her mother and the strength she instilled in her. It is a reminder of her own wings and their independence from the horror of slavery.

Had you heard of the Denmark Vesey slave plot before reading this novel? Were you aware of the extent that slaves resisted? Why do you think the myth of the happy, compliant slave endured? What were some of the more inventive or cunning ways that Charlotte, Handful and other characters rebelled and subverted the system?

I hadn’t heard of Denmark Vesey prior to The Invention of Wings but I was aware of slave rebellions throughout slavery. I think the myth of the happy, compliant slave is bull and that it has only endured as a means of soothing guilt. The idea that a particular owner treated his slaves well is a farce and an insult to the truth really. The slave still wasn’t free and isn’t even considered a human being. I think Charlotte and Handful’s quilts, spirit tree and even sneaking off to find some form of humanity—whether through the affair with Denmark Vesey (Charlotte) or the planning of the slave rebellion with him (Handful) were some of the ways they rebelled and subverted the system. The book got me a lot more interested in Vesey’s story and recent news events (the shooting at Vesey’s church in South Carolina) piqued that interest even more. I think it is a part of history that get’s dropped from textbooks and it is important as an example of the strength and resilience of an entire race of people. As a person of color, I think I owe it to myself to know the things about my people that standard public school history classes didn’t teach me. 

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