The Secret Life of Bees is a phenomenon with teen readers, especially girls. It hardly needs suggesting from us, does it? They just seem to know about it. It always comes up as a peer recommendation when I lead booktalk sessions with the 9th graders in my library. I wonder how that happens, 12 years after publication. It’s just one of those books, like The Kite Runner or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
So, it is exciting that Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel has teen potential. The Invention of Wings is historical fiction about the Grimke family. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were abolitionists and outspoken leaders in the women’s rights movement. The reader meets Sarah and her fictional slave, Hetty, as 11-year-old girls in Charleston, SC, and watches them struggle against the expectations of 19th century life.
The author’s website includes details about her historical research and how she translated that work into the voices and actions of her two narrators. It is worth noting that The Invention of Wings is the latest Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection.
Kate Alcott’s first novel, The Dressmaker, followed a servant who survived the sinking of the Titanic. Her second, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, focuses on the “Mill Girls” of Lowell, Massachusetts. Her protagonist, Alice, becomes the voice of the workers as the realities of life in the mills become clear. The first 30 pages are available on Scribd.
Both of these novels seem like natural additions to school library collections. I would alert your history teacher colleagues, as well as the students.
* KIDD, Sue Monk. The Invention of Wings. 384p. Viking. Jan. 2014. Tr $27.95. ISBN 9780670024780.
Adult/High School–In 1803, on Sarah Grimke’s 11th birthday, her parents give her Handful (a slave name Hetty), who is 10. So begins this powerful novel spanning 30 years told in alternating chapters between the two. Sarah is a member of a large Charleston family who owns 14 slaves. She does not want Handful for a birthday gift and attempts to free her. Unsuccessful though she is, this is the beginning of her lifelong journey to abolish slavery and advocate for equal rights. She has a difficult relationship with her strong-willed and often cruel mother who has her punished for teaching Handful to read. The child wonders if Sarah’s feelings towards her come from love or guilt, and she doesn’t know if her feelings toward Sarah come from love or a need to be safe. Throughout, theirs is a complex relationship beautifully brought to life via the dual points of view. Searching for purpose in her life, Sarah moves to Philadelphia to become a Quaker while Handful struggles with the disappearance of her beloved mother and joins forces with a free slave who is planning a revolt against the slave owners. Sarah and her sister become the first female abolition feminists, and by the late 1830s, they are the “most famous and infamous women in America.” The extensive author’s note clarifies what is fact and what is fiction and interestingly, though Handful’s character is fictional, and Sarah Grimke and her sister’s stories are for the most part factual, Handful’s chapters are the more compelling ones. Teens who like historical fiction and family sagas will find this novel’s strong characterization, palpable tension, and beautiful writing hard to put down.–Jane Ritter. Mill Valley School District, CA
ALCOTT, Kate. The Daring Ladies of Lowell. 304p. Doubleday. Feb. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780385536493.
Adult/High School–In 1832, Alice leaves her father and the farm she hates. Ready for adventure, she joins other young women hoping to gain independence and a steady salary as workers in the new mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. Along with the hardships, long hours, and dangerous conditions she encounters, she finds true friendship with the other “Mill Girls,” especially independent and unconventional Lovey. The two young women share dreams, friendship, and a sense of social justice. Capable and intelligent, Alice captures the eye of Samuel Fiske, the handsome son of the mill owner. His interest in her and his support of her growing interest in the rights of the workers seems at odds with the firm handling of those workers by his stern father, Hiram. When Lovey is found strangled to death, an itinerant preacher is cited for the crime and a dramatic trial is held. Alice is chosen to represent the workers at the trial and tries to make sense of Lovey’s death, the unsafe mills, and her growing friendship with Samuel. The novel is based on true incidents during the early years in the mills. Alice is a compelling voice of the change that industrialization brought for women. Samuel Fiske is equally at odds with a tradition and history of wealth and privilege that dismisses the health and safety of the workers who provide his family with that wealth. This excellent story of love, romance, and steadfast friendship will appeal to a wide variety of teens.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA