This weekend I read The Help, a novel by Kathryn Stockett. I don’t have much opportunity to read for pleasure (which is not to say that I don’t enjoy reading sociological research, just that it is not the same as sitting down with a novel). Since on any given day I have a stack of 10 or 20 books I need to get through and no idea where to find the time to do it, novels are not really in the cards for me right now. I do so miss the blissful days of college and early graduate school when I didn’t feel I had enough time for novels during the semester but would amass everything I wanted to read and spend the entire summer reading novels – 2 or 3 a week. Some summers I would read around a certain theme (e.g. young adult sci-fi and fantasy or the NY times 100 best novels) sometimes I would just read. Eventually it became apparent that keeping up with sociology was going to make it tough for me to maintain my relationship with fiction. I began to read as an escape – picking up a novel here and there and doing nothing for else for a day or two until I finished it – no work, no sleep, nothing. Then I had kids and eliminated the possibility of giving up sleep or doing nothing for more than a few dazed minutes at a time. I imagine a time (post-tenure with kids a bit older??) when I can have space in my life to read fiction.
But, a few weeks ago I went to the dentist and she was telling me all about The Help – a novel about three women (including 2 domestic servants) writing a novel about the lives of domestic servants in early 1960s Jackson Mississippi. It sounded interesting and moderately defensible as reading (I study race, after all). I filed the information away in my memory banks and thought no more about it until this past Wednesday when I went to the used bookstore to augment our supply of Dr. Seuss bright and early books. There it was, The Help, right next to the register. I didn’t even consider not placing it on top of The Cat in the Hat.
It was a nice book. While Stockett designed a plot that was a little too tidy and optimistic for my taste, she did a fantastic job with character development and perspective. Different chapters are narrated by one of the three main characters and, once you get to know them a bit, you really can hear them each loud and clear. Stockett, a white woman who grew up as child of privilege raised in large part by her own domestic servants, creates a compelling character in Skeeter, the white woman, a recent college grad, trying to figure out how she fit into Jackson’s high society and looking for a book to write. Skeeter is naive and mostly blind to her privilege and, throughout the book remains unconnected to and uninvolved with desegregation activism and civil rights initiatives. Her growing awareness, over the course of the novel, of the unnaturalness of the taken-for-granted nature of the racist divisions in her society is one of the better points of the book – not because she comes all that far (she NEVER gets political or seeks to change the everyday injustices that make her life what it is), but because, in the perspective of the people around her, she has gone off the deep-end to even see “the Help” as people “like us.” Aibileen is an aging domestic servant who lost her only son and now dotes on the otherwise unloved child of her employers. Aibileen is the true hero of the story and, in my opinion, is a bit too unflawed. Like Mary Poppins, she comes off practically perfect in every way. However, she is wise and weathered. While reading you come to find comfort in her calm, slow and quiet voice and you understand perfectly why the child she cares for falls into her arms and whispers to her “You’re my real mama.” In constructing Aibileen, Stockett creates a character that is too good to be true, but in doing so she allows the reader to experience the painful complexity of the love that can exist between white children and their black caregivers. It is just such a love that motivates both Skeeter, and according to her acknowledgements, Stockett as well. Minny is the third primary character – a spitfire of a domestic servant whose sharp tongue and no nonsense demeanor mask a deep resentments and potentially fatal vulnerabilities. Her story is perhaps the most cliched – as she learns throughout the course of the novel that her life is not as predetermined as she thinks.
Anyway, The Help, give it a try.