The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, has a new book out. I loved her other books so was happy to get hold of this one too.

Set in the early 1800’s, the book is told from two perspectives, Sarah, who comes from a slave owning family in Charleston, South Carolina, and Handful, one of her slaves. Each girl has alternating chapters so the reader gets both views on the events that are happening.

Sarah is given Handful as a gift on her 11th birthday. Even though Sarah has been raised in this atmosphere of slavery, she is appalled that she could “own” someone. Sarah tries to free Handful but is stopped by her parents as well as the laws of the day which makes it difficult to emancipate a slave. The two girls become friends. They try to help each other as they deal with slavery and the submissive role of women in the world. Sarah struggles with the ideas of a woman’s role. She wants a career but is stymied at every turn. Her one salvation is her younger sister, Angelina, who she practically raises as her own. She teaches her to hate the slavery that supports their family.

Handful and her mother Charlotte have their own struggle. They are secretly working to earn money in order to buy their freedom. When caught out in an infraction, the punishments are severe. Handful gets caught up in plans for a slave uprising. Charlotte falls in love but the hardships of a black couple staying together can be insurmountable.

The book takes us through the roles of slave and master in the South, and into the North where the slave question is fought with many different ideas for a solution. Sarah and Angelina also get caught up in the struggle for women’s rights.

I enjoyed the book very much even if the stories of slave punishment were a bit hard to take. What really took me back was when I finished and read the author notes. This story is based on real people. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were actual abolitionists and among the most famous (or infamous) speakers of their day. Their writings on women’s rights were inspiration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. The story of Handful, while not based on an actual person, realistically depicts the life of slaves at that time.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Recently I saw a ripple of excitement across social media: a new Sarah Waters book was coming out soon!! I thought: who? Which was surprising to me, since, as a librarian, I like to think I’m pretty well caught-up on the popular authors of the day. But of course, no one person can read everything. Still, given how excited many of my friends were about the release of The Paying Guests, I figured I should probably try reading it.

I was a little disheartened when I picked up my hold on it and discovered that it was a very long work of historical fiction set in 1920s England. I’m one of few Americans who isn’t mad for Downton Abbey–it’s just usually hard for me to enjoy period dramas. But still, I decided to give The Paying Guests a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother. Her brothers died in the Great War, and her father died shortly after, and as a result, the Wrays have fallen on hard times and must take in boarders to make ends meet. Their neighbors refer to the boarders as “paying guests” to make it seem classier.

At first, Frances is determined to go about life as normal, but her life quickly gets entwined with the drama their boarders, the Barbers bring with them. The Paying Guests is a beautifully-written story that combines a page-turning crime story with a tender romance. Waters’s historical details inform and shape the story without dragging it down. I would highly recommend The Paying Guests to anyone, but especially to those who already enjoy historical fiction.

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