Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

This is one terrific book.

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Amazon recommended this book to me, and as a person who loves just about everything Sue Monk Kidd writes, I bought it immediately. AdventureMan had also read a review and said it might be a good book for our book club, so he gets it next. Most of my friends have it on Kindle to read soon.

The book is written in two voices, that of Sarah Gremke’, white, and Charlestonian, of Charleston society families, and the other voice of Hetty/Handful, the slave given to Sarah for her 11th birthday. First Sarah tries to refuse the ‘gift,’ then, using her father’s law books, she writes a letter of emancipation for Hetty, and neither effort works. Sarah and Hetty are stuck with each other, stuck with the times, stuck with their situation, and stuck with the institutions that determine and limit what they will accomplish.

Or are they?

There were times, as I read the book, that I felt like I was going to suffocate. First, the heat and humidity of Charleston, South Carolina, are bad enough without the kinds of close-fitting clothing women were required to wear in that day; the thought of wearing those clothes makes me choke.

The limited expectations for women would stunt and damage the strongest female character in that society where those who thrived were those who were pretty, good at getting married, and good at bearing children, dressing appropriately and socializing endlessly at the same stale events.

Slavery damages everyone. No one should have that kind of power over another human being; studies show that when human beings are given power over another their very worst instincts come to the forefront. Why do we need studies? We have the real world to show us what that kind of power does, how it corrupts the one who holds the power so thoroughly that they don’t even know they are corrupted.

These are stories from my time living in countries where people from poorer countries came to work:

My maid had worked for a family where the men pestered her because she was full time and live-in. They assumed she was sexually available to them and made life very difficult for her. Her mistress saw a beautiful silk blouse she wore, a blouse she had saved for and only wore on her day off, and her mistress borrowed it, stained it, returned it and didn’t take any responsibility for ruining her one really nice blouse. It was never mentioned again. Only when the men complained about this woman was she allowed to leave; her mistress didn’t want the men tempted, she got her passport back and come to work for me. Her previous mistress wanted an ugly maid, and the men were hoping for someone more compliant.

The woman who bought my car had saved and saved, and was working under deplorable conditions in a day care. I told her that she had skills, get another job, and she told me that she hadn’t been paid for three months, and if she left she would never get that pay, and also her employer would never give her her passport or allow her to leave. She was, in effect, a slave.

Most of my friends are very good employers, taking good care of the people who come to work for them, but I have seen those (not my friends) who are violent and abusive. Being a slave is being trapped in an existence with no control over your own life.

Monk makes an interesting comparison of white women’s lives with their limitations being not unlike a variant of slavery. Maybe the conditions were a little better, but the un-free-ness was similar.

Sarah Grimke’ and her sister Angelina, against all odds, break free of family expectations and societal constraints. They forge their own way, with Angelina’s gift for rhetoric and Sarah’s keep legal writing. I had never heard of these women before, and I am so glad Sue Monk Kidd wrote this book to raise their visibility both as abolitionists and as some of the very first proponents for women’s rights to full equality.

As a quilter, I also loved in this book that Handfull’s mother is a quilter, and while she can neither read nor write, she puts down her history in an applique quilt which clearly spells out significant events in her life, and is a tool for passing family history from one generation to another.

January 18, 2014 Posted by | Biography, Books, Community, Cultural, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Heritage, Living Conditions, Political Issues, Social Issues, Women's Issues, Work Related Issues | , , , , | Leave a comment

Sue Monk Kidd: Mermaid Chair

It took me a long time to buy this book, and an even longer time to read it. I kept reading the description, and I didn’t like it at all. But it kept popping up on the “recommended for you” list on Amazon, and I had this inner feeling that I was meant to read it, even if I didn’t particularly care to.

After treating myself to Leon and Bowen, I thought now was the time.

At first I found The Mermaid Chair a little Anne Rivers Siddon-ish – and I like Anne Rivers Siddons, and I don’t like imitations, which this felt like. And I thought to myself “Anne Rivers Siddons does it better.”

I kept reading, though. The book was intriguing, and I wanted to know what happened next.

Sue Monk Kidd wrote another book I really liked called The Secret Life of Bees in which I learned a lot about bees, and found the story wonderfully redemptive.

Sue Monk Kidd and Anne Rivers Siddons also share a love of the mystical, and the mystical in religion, and the mystical in human relationships, and the mystical in the sisterhood of women, all of which I find fascinating, and parts of which I would like to believe myself.

In this book, there is a lot going on. The main character is feeling stagnant and small, and invisible in her marriage. Her daughter has left for college, and she is oddly unable to find things in life to interest her. Then, her mother cuts off her finger, her mother’s friends call her to come to Egret Island, and she finds herself suddenly caught up in a whirlwind of emotions and torments that she can barely understand.

She has avoided returning to her Egret Island home to avoid the pain of her father’s death when she was 12, and her mother’s decent into moodiness and madness. She returns, meets a monk and falls in love, copes badly with her mother’s demons, and fights her way through her own personal crisis.

Sue Monk Kidd makes it all work. The work floats with artistic references; Gaugain, Matisse, Chagall, their mysterious, delightful women in particular float throught this book in Mermaid guises, and our heroine, Jessie Sullivan, discovers her own mermaid-within.

I won’t say that this is the best book I have ever read – it isn’t. I will say that I loved reading it. I loved the feel of living on Egret Island, with the tides and the birds and the small town friends, the local dog, the raininess and windiness of it all. I feel like I was there. I know the graveyard, I know the winding paths, I know those little golf carts everyone uses to get around. I know what it’s like to have to take a ferry to get to the mainland, I know the tidal currents of life’s more overwhelming moments.

As our Jessie binds her marriage back together, she says this:

Each day we pick our way through unfamiliar terrain. Hugh and I did not resume our old marriage – that was never what I wanted, and it was not what Hugh wanted either – rather we laid it aside and began a whole new one. Our love is not the same. It feels both young and old to me. It feels wise, as an old woman is wise after a long life, but also fresh and tender, something we must cradle and protect. We have become closer in some ways, the pain we experienced weaving tenacious lines of intimacy, but there is a separateness as well, the necessary distance. . . . .

I tell him, smiling, that it was the mermaids who brought me home. I mean, to the water and the mud and the pull of the tides in my own body. To the solitary island submerged so long in myself, which I desperately needed to find. But I also try to explain they brought me home to him. I’m not sure he understands any more than I do how belonging to myself allows me to belong more truly to him. I just know it’s true.”

This is a good read. It’s worth its reputation, it’s worth picking up and reading through. While some might think it’s very much a chick book, I suspect men reading it might also find a lot with which to identify. You can find this book at Amazon.com (disclosure: yes, I own shares in Amazon) for about $11.20.
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January 27, 2008 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Books, Character, Community, Family Issues, Fiction, Friends & Friendship, Living Conditions, Local Lore | , , , , | 8 Comments