We've had such a rainy summer that a lot of gardening time has morphed into reading time. No real complaints; saves me having to water and gives me a rest between manic bouts of gardening. Three recent reads offer something for everyone. First up: Kathryn Stockett's "The Help."
Recent college grad, Skeeter, feels stifled at home with her highly critical mother and with her married friends whose lives are centered around Junior League, bridge and criticizing The Help. This is 1962 Jackson, Mississippi and even middle class families have colored maids: the help. The story centers on two of the black maids and Skeeter, all told in first person in chapters alternating among the three voices. The maids speak in dialect, a risky gamble by Stockett that works and makes the maids — Aibileen and Minny — leap off the page.
Skeeter and her family are equally well-drawn but her friends — most of whom we're not supposed to like — seem stiff and middle-aged. As someone who was like Skeeter — tall, skinny, smart and wore glasses — I thought Stockett's portrayal of this dateless, ugly duckling rang true. But as a "Yankee" who was in high school when the story unfolds, I found it hard to imagine how divorced Skeeter and her friends are from what's happening in their community and across the South. We were mesmerized by the nightly news from 'Ole Miss and Birmingham and elsewhere. They don't want to know.
Skeeter's ticket out of town and this life is a job in NYC publishing. As she begins to see the black maids who surround her as people, all of whom have stories to tell, Skeeter realizes she has the makings of a book if she can get enough maids to tell their tales about working for the white ladies. Of course, it's worth their jobs — if not their lives — to sit at the same table as this white girl, let along speak their minds.
The black and white men both fall into stereotypes as does Skeeter's best friend, the book's nominal villain. She's more crazy than evil, which is what this story is about at it's heart: white women who turn their children over to black women to be nurtured, loved, raised and taught by them. And yet regard that same "help" as sub-human. Holding those two contradictory ideas at once is bound to unhinge you eventually, or so it seems to me.
Having grown up during this era, Stockett's references rang true. All the attention to home and etiquette, clothes and make-up was the norm for women no matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line you lived on. "The Help" is a satisfying read even if the all the loose ends are tied up a little too neatly.
If you're looking for the darker side of the story of relations between black and white women in an earlier era in the South, you'll find it in "Property," which I reviewed here.