Booked Up

Novelist Sue Monk Kidd Comes to Town

Author of best-seller The Secret Life of Bees will give a reading at the downtown library.

By - Feb 6th, 2014 03:50 pm
Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd

In her new historic novel, The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd presents a vivid recreation of antebellum slavery that changes our perceptions of this horrific institution and reaffirms the transformative power of fiction. Known for her best-seller, The Secret Life of Bees, (filmed in 2008 with Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson) Kidd has dug deep into her Southern heritage and given us an opportunity to time travel. She will reading from her new novel at the downtown library this Monday.

This novel is a leap ahead of Kidd’s last book. I am not bold in saying it is a masterpiece that will find its way into readers’ groups and classrooms around the world. Oprah has already anointed it as her new Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection. It is easy to understand the excitement about this vivid and affecting story. (I suspect that Oprah sees cinematic opportunity, as well) Its astute historical foundation and mix of female narrators remind us of the ways stories can draw us into others’ lives and minds.

In alternating narration, rich Sarah Grimkè (actually a real-life abolitionist) and her slave, Hetty “Handful” Grimkè, explain the daily struggles of their lives in Charleston, South Carolina (from 1803 to 1838). Sarah is a bright, stuttering young lady who hates slavery, but is drawn to the lives of the family’s slaves. “Handful” is a house maid who is also bright and desperate for freedom. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah receives “Handful” as her personal maid. Thus begins the intertwining of their lives.

As Sarah and “Handful” suffer the indignities and frustrations of daily life, we are forced into the growing realization of the brutality and dehumanization of slavery on both black and white. Sarah and her rebellious sister, Nina, are forced to see the ways in which the Bible and Christianity are contorted to defend human servitude. “Handful” and her mother, Charlotte, thirst for freedom in a way that assures conflict with the status quo.

By mixing historic figures with fictional characters, Kidd gives a patina of realism that is seldom as apparent in most such novels. There are times when the author’s extensive research intrudes on the narrative, but these moments are infrequent. Instead, the details of life in antebellum Charleston are stacked up until the readers feel as if they can see the scenes themselves.

While readers unused to the conventions of this type of novel may find the emphasis on detail stifling, most will fall in love with the beauty of the narration and poetic descriptions. Plot and incident are secondary to this exquisite poetry, but by the end of the book we have witnessed much dramatic history that precurses the Civil War. No Gone with the Wind, this story indicts the South and yet helps us to understand the bind that their dependence on slavery had created.

Abolition, slave insurrection, feminism, suffrage, and religious controversy all figure into this evocative narrative. The conflicts of modern America can all be seen in these years before the horrible ‘War between the States.”  Women, this novel reminds us, were at the forefront of all these changes. By putting human faces (and voices) on the ideas that divide us, Kidd has created a powerful and game-changing novel that reminds us that the stories we tell about our past still shape our future.

Kidd gives her reading on Monday, February 10 (7:00 PM) at Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall, 733 N. Eighth St. Sponsored by Boswell Book Company. This event is co-sponsored by 89.7 WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio. The question period will be moderated by Lake Effect’s Bonnie North.

Other upcoming Book Events:

Friday, February 7 (7:00 PM): Barbara Ali, author of “101 Things to Do in Milwaukee Parks: A Guide to the Green Spaces in Milwaukee” at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Wednesday, February 12 (7:00 PM): Rebecca Dunham Book Release Reading featuring “The Miniature Room” at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. (414) 263-5001

Wednesday, February 12 (6:30 PM): Book Club discussing “The Thirteenth Tale” by Diane Setterfield at The Little Read Book Store, 7603 W. State Street, Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665

Thursday, February 13 (7:00 PM): Len Vlahos, author of “The Scar Boys” at Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at  And good reading!


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