Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Invention of Wings Discussion Questions

I finished Sue Monk Kidd's new novel, The Invention of Wings a couple days ago and I really loved it. Based on actual people and historic events but fictionalized, this is the story of Abolitionist Sarah Grimke, her sister Angelina and the slave girl Handful who was given to Sarah as a birthday gift when she was eleven. The novel recreates antebellum Charleston in all of its gruesome, sadistic crimes against humanity, and many parts are extremely violent, tragic and difficult to read. I had the same feelings reading this as I do when I read stories about World War II. How can people be so brutally cruel to one another? How do these things happen? How can people so easily justify such awful behavior, and not just justify it, but institutionalize it and call it a way of life and create laws supporting it? That said, this isn't just a book about slavery. It's a book about women's rights as well and overall, it's an evocative, provocative and passionately drawn novel about the multiple oppressions of early American society. Not a place I'd have any interest in time-traveling to, I can tell you that much. For a country founded on the principles of freedom, it sure didn't seem like anyone had any.

This book was much different than The Signature of All Things, but it shares a few themes and some of the same time period, plus both novels had red-haired, unattractive, highly-intelligent, female protagonists, so I felt these books were interesting to read together and The Invention of Wings stuck with me and made me want to discuss it in the same way as The Signature of All Things. Therefore? More discussion questions. Yay!! Warning! Spoilers in the questions, so I'm adding a jump.
 The Invention of Wings Discussion Questions

1. How is Handful's relationship with her mother similar to Sarah's relationship with her mother? How are they different?

2. Were you surprised by Charlotte's boldness? What qualities of Charlotte's did you most admire? What words could be used to describe her personality? Do you think some of her choices were stupid? What would you have done in her situation?

3. Why do you think Handful left her writing in the dirt? Do you think that she subconsciously wanted everyone to know she could read? Do you think she cared about Sarah getting punished?

4. Would you agree that after reading this book that the culture of early America was extremely oppressive to everyone? Not just slaves? Who else in this book suffered oppression? How were the Quakers the same way? What about men? Did white men really enjoy all the freedom? In what instances were they too subject to oppression?

5. Why do you think this society was so oppressive in the first place? What caused it? When did it finally stop? Or did it? In what ways is our current culture similar?

6. It seems that no matter where Sarah went she never quite fit in. Why do you think that was? Was there any point in the book where she did fit in or where she experienced true freedom?

7. Do you really believe that Sarah influenced Angelina or might she have shared her same opinions regardless?

8. Was it truly the best choice for Sarah to give back ownership of Handful to her mother? Could you make the argument that this was a mistake and that it would have been more ethical for Sarah to have kept ownership of Handful because she would have been treated better and then later, she could have freed her herself?

9. Was Sarah's mother's compromise in the end a good choice or a bad choice? Why? Why do you think she wouldn't completely give in to Sarah's requests?

10. What purposes, other than domestic help, did slavery serve for white women? Could it have given them a sense of power that they otherwise lacked?

11.  Were you surprised when Sarah turned down Israel's proposal? Did she make the right decision in doing so? Why or why not? Did Sarah make a sacrifice for her cause or was it not at sacrifice at all?

12.  Why did the South refer to slavery as their "peculiar institution?" Why did so many people simply write off its atrocities as their "way of life," as Sarah's mother explains it?

13. Did Sarah's copper bathtub hold any special symbolism?

14. Why do you think Handful finally had sex with Goodis? Do you think that they loved each other? Was Goodis's affection a substitute for her mother's love when Charlotte went missing? Was Goodis's reaction to Handful and Sky's escape proof of his true love for Handful?

15. How were Handful and Sarah similar or different? How might each have reacted to her situation if their roles were reversed?

16. What would you have done in Handful's situation when Denmark Vesey asked her to steal the bullet molds? Did you understand her moral dilemma there?

17. Why did Denmark Vesey exaggerate his claims about his slave revolt?

18. What can we make of slaves who appeared to side with their white masters instead of their fellow slaves? How might this have been a survival strategy for some?

19. Were there any elements of the "Pet Negro" or "Magical Negro" characters in this book? Where?

20. In what ways was slavery actually a burden on white society? Can you find some examples of this in the book?

21. What is the significance of Sky's affinity for gardening? Is it possible that her name was intended by Kidd to be ironic or was it actually a fitting name for her?

22. Compare the quilt in this novel to the quilting themes in Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use."

23. Did you learn anything about slavery or abolition from reading this novel that you didn't know about it before?

24. How did you feel about the Abolitionists' reluctance to fully support women's equality? Was their argument that it weakened their stance valid?

25. How did you interpret the ending? Was it a happy ending?

26. What do you think about Kidd's choice to write a fictionalized account of real life people and events? How might this have been limiting to her creativity? Why didn't she just make up her own characters instead? How did using real people and events strengthen this novel?

27. Both The Invention of Wings and The Help are novels about relationships between black women and white women at different periods in the fight for civil and women's rights. Compare and contrast these two novels. 

28. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help has been deeply criticized for appropriating black voices, yet Kidd does the same thing here. Both books share a similar structure with alternating first person narratives. Is this okay for a white author to do? Why or why not? 

Read this article criticizing The Help.  Could the same arguments be applied to The Invention of Wings? Is this too just "another novel by and for white women?"

29. Reflect on the book's title. Why is it called The Invention of Wings? What do the wings symbolize? Who had wings? Who in this book "invented" wings and how? What is the significance of the choice of the word "Invention?" What other word could have been used? Can you think of any alternate titles?


Living in Muddy Waters said...

Can I still answer the questions next year when my turn FINALLY comes at the library to read it? I think I am 75th in line now. PLEASE????

Michelle said...

I got all excited reading Muddy's comment! For a second I thought her blog was back! Now I'm just sad again :(

Living in Muddy Waters said...

3. Were you surprised by Charlotte's boldness?
I was not surprised by Charlotte's boldness. I would suspect that there were more instances of slaves doing things to cause problems that we just didn't hear about because the South truly tried to perpetuate the myth that slaves were happy. It continues today. How many times do we hear people and politicians say the black culture is happy the way they are?

What qualities of Charlotte's did you most admire?
Charlotte was actually a fearsome character to me. I would have been very wary and scared of her if I met her in real life. The fact that she wouldn't back down made her dangerous, which makes the acts that actually broke her so much more gruesome to imagine. You got bits and pieces of what happened to her through other's tales, but I think Kidd purposely did not elaborate on her breaking because it would have taken too much and most readers would not have hung along with it because you know it had to be vicious.
What words could be used to describe her personality?
Fierce, single-minded, cruel, loving
Do you think some of her choices were stupid? I don't think any of her choices were stupid. I think she lived life on her terms in a society determined to defeat her. Even when she knew she would get punished, she even got punished on her terms (the upside down can warning her that she had been caught).
What would you have done in her situation?
It's easy to say that I would have done similar things, but truly, I think i would have broken way before she did and died a very early death. It takes a special person not only to live in hell, but to define it and bend it to their terms.

More later.

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