Rewriting History

Getting the details right in a historical novel is always a struggle. There will always be loose threads that can’t be tucked in. But when you know a detail perfectly well and choose to ignore it, what are readers to think?

This month the book group at the local Unitarian Church is reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, so I took it out for a spin. It’s set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early years of the 19th century, and it’s specifically about the evils of slavery. Personally, I prefer not to read a novel in which all of the important characters are either evil or in misery, and in which we know from the very start that there can’t possibly be a happy ending. I’d rather read a book that entertains while it inspires. But that’s just me. Others doubtless feel this novel is important and worth reading.

What disturbs me about it, from a critical perspective, is that Kidd seems quite deliberately to have avoided using the word “nigger.” I haven’t read the whole book, and I don’t plan to, but after 30 pages I did jump ahead to check later chapters. Nope. I couldn’t find the word anywhere.

This is plain cowardice. There’s no way around it. Kidd should be ashamed of herself. If you’re going to write a historical novel, you have an obligation to get it right whenever it’s practical to do so. Not only that, but the word (which was in very common use at the time) has everything to do with the theme of Kidd’s book.

Some racial epithets, such as “darkies,” I think we can safely live without. Kidd’s story is grim enough without those terms. But an author shouldn’t be too eager to (cough-cough) whitewash history.

Possibly the publishers (Viking Penguin) demanded that she get rid of the n-word. Writers sometimes face a difficult choice: Do you please the publisher by being dishonest and damaging your work, or do you destroy your career by standing up for what you know is right?

I hope it was the publisher’s dictate. And I hope she fought them tooth and nail.

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