Friday, February 13, 2009
The Meltingpot Book Reivew-- The Help
"Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime."
And so begins first-time novelist, Kathryn Stockett's wonderful new book, The Help (Amy Einhorn Books).
I have to admit, knowing Stockett is White (her picture is on the back of the book) made me a wee bit skeptical as the opening chapter is written in the first person of a Black southern maid in "vernacular." There was this guarded skepticism on my part that a White woman could truly get in the head of a Black domestic. But not 10 pages into this well-told story and I'd completely forgotten about Stockett and was completely mesmerized by the inter-connected stories of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny, the main characters in this heart-warming book. Aibileen and Minny are Black maids in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi and Skeeter is a White, recent college graduate who returns home to Jackson yearning for her real life to start.
The three women end up on a "secret project" together to do their part to help bring about some sort of change in their racially charged city where Civil Rights activists are being brutally murdered and White people who sympathize with Blacks get their homes fire bombed. But make no mistake, this is not a book about police brutality and KKK raids. Instead Stockett takes us into the daily lives -- bridge club, Junior League meetings, church -- of everyday people, both Black and White, to show us what racism really looks like and feels like, up close and personal. How it feels in your home and at the grocery store and late at night after you put your children to bed. This is most definitely a woman's story where men are relegated to supporting roles. The bad guys are women and the good guys are too.
Even though this is a work of fiction, the story feels quite authentic and includes some real historical figures and events. It gives readers a better understanding of the complicated relations between Blacks and Whites in the South without being preachy or didactic. I think I loved the book even more after I read Stockett's afterword where she writes:
"I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature."
I can't help compare this book to Sue Monk Kidd's, The Secret Life of Bees. Another tale that explains how southern Blacks and Whites could live and love one another despite the virulent racism pulsating all around. But like Bees, there's no sugar coating in The Help. Stockett does a masterful job of explaining how that thin line between love and hate can be crossed every day, back and forth, until the line blurs into something far more complicated.
I hope this book receives lots of attention and many different people pick it up to read. Not only will it make an excellent book club read, but it will hopefully continue our most important conversations on race.
Thank you Kathryn Stockett for deciding this story --a story about The Help -- was important enough to tell and for conquering your fear and telling the story anyway.
p.s. This book was reviewed as part of a Mother Talk Blog Tour.