Our Book Club, the Bookbags, met on Tuesday to discuss a fine novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help. She was rejected 45 times after she submitted her manuscript, but #46 worked like a charm. The book gives a voice to a group of Mississippi maids, laboring for Junior League-ish women of the early 60’s. I was a little uncomfortable with the premise of the book before I plowed in- I feared that the maids would be portrayed in a stereotypical manner. To the contrary, they are the dignified characters, ladling out love and wisdom to their “children”. Their expression is musical, and their idioms are funny and down-to-earth. Their bosses are not portrayed as kindly. The Mississippi setting conjures up the Southern elite, fighting to remain attached to “plantation” social stratification. “Separate but equal” has resulted in libraries, hospitals, lunch counters, schools, and public transportation systems being segregated. In the months that serve as a backdrop for this action, James Meredith is admitted with a federal guard to Ole Miss, Medgar Evers is killed, and President Kennedy warns the governor of Mississippi that the Jim Crow era is over. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington D.C. takes place. Kennedy is killed. Civil Rights legislation is drafted by Lyndon Johnson. All these tentative steps toward equality are threatening to the women of Jackson, yet are almost abstractions to the maids. Their survival depends upon never offending the boss. They have spent generations loving children who will ultimately turn away from them, unwilling to mix except when subservience is inherent. They are afraid.
The book is narrated by two maids, Abileen and Minny, and Skeeter, a writer who encourages them to tell their stories. Skeeter is uncomfortable with the vestiges of the “Institution” in Jackson, and wants to explore why the help is good enough to raise and love children, but not worthy of using the same silverware. She promises anonymity. The maids fear reprisals. They do not believe that anyone would care to hear their tales. Yet theirs are stories that need to be told: of boys blinded for using a white-only washroom, injured sons dumped like trash after an accident, false theft accusations spread around town, toilets plumbed for servants in garages so they would never share with the family. Their dictation to Skeeter is an effort to “be somebody” and the book succeeds by making us care deeply about their predicament. The bosses who count the silverware after polishing day, who send canned goods to Africa to avoid having the natives “spend cash on voodoo and tattoos” are drawn with a very sharp pencil. Their cruelty is not confined to the help; it is inflicted upon anyone who dares to challenge their authority. They torment Celia, a “white trash” interloper who has married one of their men. We do not care so much for them.
The book was loved and embraced by all members of the Bookbags. One member listened to it on audio-book, where the music of the language was a bonus. We had fried chicken, biscuits and a ladyfinger cake, referenced in the book- and chocolate tarts…a nod to one act of retribution inflicted by a discharged, discarded Minny after a lifetime of service. It was a great book, great discussion, and a great night. I strongly recommend The Help. Have you read it? Your book club? What was your reaction?
Next month I try my Kindle and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I have not unlocked too many Kindle mysteries as yet- I was too brain-addled with my brother’s surgery. But I will let you know if it makes reading a delight.
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