Saturday, November 26, 2011

NOT a Book Review: "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

This is not a book review. I'm sure this book (and the movie) have been reviewed a gazillion times. This is a raw and unexpurgated description of  my experience of reading the book. Keep in mind: I don't just read a book like this: I inhabit it. And then I think about it. And then I rewrite it in my head, the way I want it to be.

Spoiler alert: do not read this if you haven't read the book and don't want to know the ending.

Thursday I cooked Thanksgiving dinner and I cleaned up afterwards. Later, when the house was quiet and empty, I went online and did most of my Christmas shopping, because I was feeling particularly loving and generous towards my family.  Before I turned off the computer, I decided to download some eBooks to read over the weekend. I decided to treat myself to a couple of bestsellers that I've been wanting to read. One of which was The Help. I have avoided the movie because I wanted to read the book first.

I grew up in the Midwest, but my mother is from the Deep South (not Mississippi) and, when I was a kid, she still had a lot of kin in her home town town. I remember traveling by car in the South, both during the very end of the Jim Crowe era and during the Civil Rights movement. It was not a pleasant experience. However, in many ways my Midwestern world was more segregated than the Jim Crowe South. The races in our town were not kept separate. There simply were no black people in our town.

When we visited my mother's home town, we saw lots of black people. (We called them "colored". My Southern relatives called them "Nigros".) There was strict separation of the races. My mother had a relative who owned a store. White people came in and were waited on at the counter. Black people had to come to a window (like a drive-up window for pedestrians) on the side and the clerk would hand the merchandise out the window.  Bathrooms and drinking fountains had signs indicating who could use which one.  Once in Birmingham, we stopped for gas at a "colored" station. The attendant clearly didn't want to wait on us, but he was too polite to tell us to hie our white Yankee asses on to a different part of town. I guess he figured it would be safer for everybody if he sold us the gas and got us the hell out of there PDQ.  My dad had no clue. My mother was shaking by the time we pulled back on the highway. 

In the Sixties, Martin Luther King was an object of scorn for absolutely everybody I knew. He was generally referred to as a Communist, because in our little blue-collar Midwestern world that was about the worst name you could call someone. I never heard my mother or any of my Southern relatives give an opinion on the question of the civil rights movement. I do know that in 1968, both my parents, and virtually all my relatives, voted for George Wallace.

I never really saw a black person up close until I was in junior high. There were something like a dozen black kids in a school of 400.  I didn't know any of them personally.  The same few blacks were in high school with me. I had a passing acquaintance with a couple of them in the choir. I went to an overwhelmingly white university. I socialized with a couple of African exchange students. I didn't know any American blacks.

I dated a black guy when I was in my twenties.  I didn't introduce him to any of my friends or family.  Later in my twenties, I had a really good black female friend. We socialized quite a bit and we shared clothes to expand our wardrobes. She once threw a big party at her house. I was the only white guest. At first, I was very freaked out about that, but I stayed and ended up having a wonderful time. She never invited me to her house again, however. (I think her husband had something to do with that.)

I have always known that the seed of racial prejudice that somehow seems to be planted early in life has always managed to hang on in my soul despite my desire to uproot it. I may not be a segregationist and an evil bigot like Hilly Harwood, but I struggle with prejudice every day. (And not just prejudice against blacks.) I have to own that. That's why when books like this come around, I always try to read them to remind myself the the struggle against prejudice and injustice is ongoing. I can never become complaisant.

I started reading the book on Thanksgiving evening about 8:00 PM. I finished it about 6:30 PM on Friday. I slept a few hours and ate some Thanksgiving leftovers. Other than those necessities, I read straight through.

I enjoyed reading the book. The narrative drew me into the story. I liked the voices of the narrators. Stockett managed to make them "sound" different on the page. Other than the voices of the characters, however, the first half of the book contained nothing I hadn't already read or seen in movies before.  In a way it reminded me of the "liberal westerns" like Dances with Wolves where the whites are the bad guys and the Indians are too good to be true. In this book the Wise Women are the maids. The white women are both clueless and in serious denial.

There's a lot of stereotyping, with respect to both races.

Along about the end of  chapter 1 there was a clanging in the back of my head. I looked up Stockett's name online and was disturbed to discover that she was white. After that, I focused more on her treatment of the white characters, because I'm not really interested in what a white author thinks about the experience of being black in Mississippi. Therefore, I focused on how the people of both races dealt with cultural "lines".  There's a lot about "line-crossing" in the book. I sort of focused on that theme.

I haven't looked it up, but some of the history seems "off" to me. If I recall, Medger Evers was shot, not beaten to death. And I kind of doubt that the white people of Jackson, Mississippi, were all that upset about the Kennedy assassination. I could overlook all of that, especially considering my opinion that the heart of the story wasn't really about the civil rights movement, anyway. For me the main thing that made it hard for me to suspend disbelief was the ease with which Skeeter was able to visit the black neighborhood. Again, I haven't looked it up, but I would think that in the period from 1962-1963, Jackson, Mississippi would have been crawling with civil rights workers, reporters, and cops. I cannot envision how a young white woman (from a fairly prominent family) could move so freely around the black part of town. Especially when the first time or two, she drove her mother's Cadillac! Really?

I think Stockett could have accomplished the same thing in a different way by having them meet at other locations -- maybe even some civil rights meetings where whites and blacks would have been able to mingle.  This piece was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome in reading the book. It didn't ring true.

I tried to ignore that, because I still didn't think the story was about the maids. The heart of the story was about how difficult it is for people to cross cultural barriers, even if doing so would get them out of horrible situations. The white women live in much nicer surroundings, but in many ways they are as confined by cultural boundaries as the black women.

Hilly, of course, is the female tyrant who is the villain of the book. She's a Southern fried "Mean Girl" who spouts segregationist BS that she has learned by rote from her parents and her church and her teachers. There's nothing particularly personal about Hilly's racism. It is her political position and she regurgitates the party line at every opportunity. (See also: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Anne Coulter). What is personal with Hilly is her need to control others, and her willingness to punish anyone who challenges her supremacy in her piddly little realm. In many ways, for me (having known a few Hilly's in my life), Hilly rings the truest of all the women in the book (if a little exaggerated). She is the guardian of the status quo. Hilly, like the Second Temple Pharisees, builds a fence around the her Torah and guards it with all she's got. No one inside can leave and no one outside can get in. Or else. I know a lot of people like that.

The other white women follow Hilly because they're afraid to cross her. This seems to be a theme in a lot of women's literature ("Mean Girls" is a great example) not to mention the lives of white women in America. There's always a Queen Bee who is surrounded by her entourage. The people in her circle resent her and fear her, but they rarely cross her unless they are really up against a wall. These women all have the lines can't or won't cross, too. And a lot of those lines cause them great unhappiness.

Then there's Skeeter. I see Skeeter as not only as one of the narrators or the person who puts the book together. I see Skeeter as the real main character in the story. In many ways, at the outset of the book, Skeeter's life is as rigidly restricted as the lives of the black women. With a tyrannical mother, Hilly as a best friend and the distance that her farm residence puts her from the goings-on in town, Skeeter is kind of a clueless female who is on the fast track to becoming a weird Old Maid.  There are a lot of problems with Skeeter's character. For a journalism major from Ole Miss, she takes surprisingly little interest in the James Meredith situation or the fact that Jackson is in the cross-hairs of the civil rights movement. In some ways she's more interested in events in Vietnam.  Skeeter is seriously in denial. There was a lot of that going on in the South at the time, so I'm prepared to allow her to be clueless. Denial is her way of coping with the fear that someone may knock down some of the cultural barriers in her world.

She can't talk back to her mother, but then a lot of women have that problem. I give her points for talking back to the alcoholic, sniveling Senator's son, and then ultimately refusing to marry him. Perhaps because of her farm upbringing, surrounded by blacks, Skeeter seems to be the white character who is most comfortable with the blacks. That doesn't mean she's pro-civil rights. I don't think she is pro-civil rights at any point in the story. I don't have any sense anywhere in the story that Skeeter has any political convictions whatsoever.

Skeeter's initial reason for writing a book is simply because she wants to be a writer and get published. As she gets to know the women, it seems she starts to see them as people, not as "the help" but as people.  I don't think Skeeter ever sees that what they're doing is an act of political rebellion, or, more accurately an act of prophecy (as in "speaking Truth to Power"). The black women understand that's what they're doing. I don't think Skeeter sees it at all, ever. She provides the maids the forum they need to tell their stories. Skeeter isn't the author of the book. The women are. Skeeter simply types it and sends it to New York.  To her credit, she shares the money with the women who did write the book.

Even near the end, Skeeter is afraid to venture out on her own. The black women have to persuade her to take the job in New York and get out of Jackson while she can. She goes, still not understanding what a huge step she's taking.  The maids start crossing lines, too. A few of the white women do, too, at least to the extent of refusing to bend to Hilly's will to fire their maids.

The only people in the story who seem to understand the enormity of what they have done is Aibileen and Minny.  The white women continue to go about their lives with their heads in the sand about the political and social events that rage around them. They are hanging onto a way of life that is dying, sort of like Scarlett's friends and relatives tried to do a century earlier.  The maids know that the jig is up, and they begin to act accordingly.  The book ends before the whites figure out what happened.

I haven't read too much about the book or the movie. I bet a couple of Google searches would turn up a whole bunch of controversy about inaccuracies in the history and "how dare a white woman presume to understand what it was like to be black in Mississippi". Yada Yada. 

To the extent this story was really "about" the civil rights movement at all (which I don't really think it is), I think it makes the point that the civil rights movement would never have succeeded (to the limited extent that it did) until and unless the local people, both black and white, got on board. I don't even recall a reference in the book to the freedom riders. I'm for sure it didn't mention SNCC or CORE. It ignored all of those things. Probably a lot of white people in the South did ignore those things. The story focuses on a few women trying to go about living their normal everyday lives in cultural environment that keeps all of them imprisoned, in one way or another. Some of them just have nicer jails than others.

More than about civil rights, it's a story about the dysfunction that is too often at the heart of women's relationships. The black women and the white women, alike,  hold each other up and support one another in times of trouble. Both groups are just as quick to cut somebody down if she starts to deviate from the party line. Women do not tolerate other women who do not conform to the local social rules.

The thing I liked the best (maybe because I'm a writer) was the story of the writing of the book. I still have a problem with Skeeter's ability to move so freely around the black neighborhood, but I found the truest part of the book to be the part where the women's need to tell their stories becomes so urgent and so strong that it overwhelms their legitimate fear of the consequences. That element of the book explored the power of Story both to endanger and to liberate. It was about unlikely heroes who step up, when circumstances force them to do so,  to engage in prophetic acts, speaking truth to power and refusing to bend to intimidation, from without and -- perhaps more importantly -- from within.

Maybe more than anything it is about women supporting one another in united efforts to scratch a little bit of joy and purpose out of life in a culture that does not take them seriously, regardless of their race or station in life.

At the end, I was left wondering if Skeeter ever "got it."   I hope so. I sincerely do.

It was a good read. I enjoyed it, but I think it would have been better if it had focused more on telling a simple story honestly, than trying to be an "important" book.

I have no intention of seeing the movie. I don't want to know what they did with that.

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