Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Help

I read Kathryn Stockett's first novel, The Help, as part of my CFUH Book Club.

It was an page-turning read, set in the first person through an ensemble of characters. I felt as if I was sitting down with coffee with each of the women in the novel and hearing their personal stories. Stories that matter, that define us, that change histories. This is another novel that evoked emotions in me that sometimes shocked me, sometimes made me cry, sometimes made me shake my head, and sometimes make me smile. And that is a good thing, a book that makes me feel that I have not wasted my money.

The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. What a time. The nation was embroiled in the middle of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the now aging Baby Boomers were coming of age and being the generation that was so formidable in their impact on the nation, and the regions of the country were as different as oil and water, New York and Mississippi. It was only 48 years ago, a lifetime, a year after my husband was born, two years before I was born. A time of my elder siblings, many of the people in their late 40s and 50s were the children of The Help. It really wasn't that long ago.

Set against the backdrop of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the murder of Medgar Evers, sit-ins, busing, almost eight years after Brown vs. Board of Education, a man on the moon, President Kennedy, the times of Mad Men and the marketing of everything from hair straightening mechanisms to new fangled washing machines and color televisions were setting the cultural tone for a nation that would not stay mired in the past. Closing my eyes and seeing the cotton fields of my husband's family's native Mississippi, I see the dusty haze, feel the oppressive heat, and try to catch my breath with the dark cloud of fear that strangled life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for many, black and white, who lived in a place that only knew human chattal.

This examination of The Help is not about the validity or lack of validity of the white female writer taking on the supposed black dialect of the black maids. It is not about the character analysis or strength of her writing, her contribution of to popular reading and bookclubs with her first novel. It is not even about whether this story was true or not, for it was true to anyone who had anyone who worked for a white woman in the south, this story was true. It is the examination of the feelings and choice and opportunity that I encountered in the book.

Skeeter Phelan was the young white woman, idealist writer, who entered this writing to just make a name for herself in a marketplace crowded with men. It was a time when women were just expected to go to Ole Miss to find a husband like the characters Hilly and Elizabeth. White women smoked to look sophisticated because that is what the soap opera commercials told them a modern woman behaved. They had children so they could produce that coveted male heir (like Lil' Man receiving his mother's love and devotion while Mae Mobley was just barely tolerated as the big sister). The age of the white women struck me as how young they were - only 22 and 23 -and the age of the black women struck me with how old they were - 41 and 61. It was as if the young had to hurry up and live their lives as prescribed by the power structure - white men and the black women had to hurry up and survive what was left of their lives as prescribed by the power structure - white women.

Skeeter was none of this and all of this. It was her mother's greatest disappointment that Skeeter went to Ole Miss, pledged a sorority, and actually graduated with a degree but not a husband. The value placed on just having that man and even the mother's marriage fee set aside to make a man want to marry the tall, gangly, still-waiting-to-blossom-beauty, the hair that would not do the Beatles girl dip or just a decent white girl pony tail. The sheer disdain of the mother made Skeeter a keen observer of what was wrong, woke up a questioning and hunger in her that she probably didn't realize was there until she was surrounded by the black women in the throws of the book, until she realized that there was a life outside Mississippi. Until the New York Jewish editor quietly and urgently pushed her to seek more. A mentor without Skeeter knowing she was being mentored.

The black women were also sitting on the stoop of just plain tired. I could feel their wanting something different, Aibleen who lost her son, Minny who was still having children to protect herself from her abusive husband, they wanted something different but didn't know how to voice it. It was in the sinew, the marrow, the very blood that flowed through their tired veins, wrinkles furrowing the brow, and feet that needed soaking at night, tired in their Dr. Scholl's.

Aibleen was courageous and a leader, always had been. She was tremendously wise and I have to believe that all 17 babies she raised did make some changes to the way the world would be. I have to believe that her whispered messages of you matter, you are smart, you are kind all sunk deep into their young souls, she was their mother more than their mothers, she truly ruled the world because she rocked the cradle, no one can forget the one who nurtured them, even if the convention of the time meant that someone would pull back the veil of pure love and tell them they were different. It was why Aibleen left before school and fear and the-way-things-are separated the babies from their black mother-in-fact. She was courageous and giving and her emotions from all those years and the loss of her own son were what gave her the voice to talk to Skeeter, first with the Miss Myrna letters and finally, about what it was really like. It gave her the wisdom on approaching MInny first and getting the rest of the maids later. I liked Aibleen.

This book settled down around me like the warm hazelnut latte and pound cake I enjoyed this morning. There was something knowing about the lives of these women, about opportunity and choice and forces greater than them trying to steer them in a direction opposite their truth. Even the vicious, Hilly, seemed constrained and too tightly wound up into the knot of fear, hypocrisy, and custom. I wondered if I could have the grace of Aibleen or the fortitude of Minny, even as she was brave outside but feared LeRoy at home. I wondered if parts of these women resided inside each of us.

I read this book in the same season that I read The Wednesday Sisters and The Street. I would highly recommend reading each of these books for an historical context of what was happening in Jackson. While New York and California seemed light years away from Mississippi, fear, uncertainty, choice, and social constraint was woven from sea to shining sea in that pivotal decade of change.

This book is being made into a movie, I am not sure I want to go see it, these women are so vivid in my mind's eye. It was a story that needed to be told from a voice that experienced it. Almost fifty years later, in a time of uncertainty again in our country, it had to be told and she was the one to tell it.

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