Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

"Mississippi and the rest of the world is two different places, " the Deacon said and we all nodded cause ain't it the truth.

I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I enjoyed it, but I wasn't sure I would for 2 reasons.

1. Dialect. This is one of those books, written with all the missing g's and poor grammar. And I've determined that I probably hear words this way when I read. Spelling badly to give me that effect just sorta seems like overkill. And then I realized that those of you who might not have grown up here might hear them differently without the spelling. By the way I stop traffic at places like Quilt Market, you aren't as familiar as I am with Southern speech (and honestly, you really ought to get down here to hear a real drawl).

2. Perception. Living in the South can be like being a part of a family. You may criticize your mother but nobody else better. And in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, there was a lot to love and to hate and family can mean many things.

The story: two black maids and one white Junior League woman understake a dangerous project, writing a book filled with the stories of what it's like to be black and working in Jackson in the 1960s. Aibileen keeps house and raises children for her employers who add on a bathroom off the carport to keep her from using either of the indoor bathrooms. Minnie cooks and cleans for a crazy white woman and is lucky to get the job because she can't stop talking back. I really understand Minnie. And Miz Skeeter is as out of place in the Junior League meetings she attends as she is at home. Together they write a book, an honest collection of stories from the help showing the good and the bad of being a part of the family but never equal.

The quote comes after the mention that Aibileen and Minnie and their friends can't believe that 250,000 people showed up to march on Washington and hear Dr. King's speech and that 60,000 of them are white. Things are changing in the rest of the world, but at home in Jackson, the lines that can't be crossed stay the same and parents continue to pass them down to their kids.
There's a lot to think about in this story. Even the powerless have a voice when they stand together. And women don't have to be powerless. Teaching kids kindness and fairness and rationality should replace teaching them fear and prejudice. Sometimes it takes time to make a change. Sometimes it takes a courageous act. Love and loyalty and family aren't restricted by race or class.

There are a couple of strange episodes I don't understand in story, like the naked white man who threatens Minnie and Celia. Why naked? Still, it shows us that Minnie would go to great lengths to protect her crazy white woman. And that Celia would do the same for Minnie. I like that. I identify with Celia too. Not the crazy part. Of course not, but the part where she comes from Sugar Ditch, outside of Jackson society, Southern in a different way. She doesn't have the right people. She doesn't understand the rules, will never fit in, but she can go above and beyond and do the right thing for another human being, no matter the color of her skin or who writes the checks.

This story of Jackson is a little different than my own Southern-ness here in Little Rock (which is in a progressive Southern state...Wikipedia says so. I guess on the scale of Southern states, it's probably true). My family had no money and no help, although my mother would have probably sacrificed one of my brothers (not me, no way) to get someone, anyone to make supper. I never even heard of the Junior League until I snuck into a private university on scholarship. And I was born at least 10 years too late for the events in this story. Still, I understand the tension of class and race too. Even now, it's hard to escape. Kathryn Stockett's story gently shows us where we've been, sometimes terrible but sometimes beautiful, and encourages us to keep going.

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