Sunday, 31 July 2011
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Help was selected by my reading group this month. For anyone who hasn't read it, this is a story about the American South back in the time of the Kennedy presidency. James Meredith had just enrolled at Mississippi University, accompanied by armed guards. Medgar Evers, his mentor was shot dead in Jackson Mississippi, the time and place where the book is based.
The book is the interwoven stories of two African American maids and a white writer, employed as a journalist at the time, who develops the idea of a book about what life is like for black maids. The three different voices are distinguished, both by the daily lives that are woven through their stories, and to some extent by the way their grammar and sentence construction is mangled. I found after a few dozen pages that I got used to the vernacular, though I found it odd that the woman who turned out to be the better writer of the two maids, appears to have the most fractured syntax. It is never easy to pull off that kind of accent, or local speech construction, but I think the author succeeds better than most.
What I found remarkable was the way that a sense of impending doom permeated the writing. At times, I felt I should be reading it in a cupboard or under a pillow, in case anyone found out. There is a lot of jeopardy and anger in the book, quite rightly when one considers the appalling notions being propagated by some of the white racist characters, and the kind of vengence meeted out to anyone who stepped out of line. Throughout the book, one well-connected lady is trying to promote the idea, through legislation if she can, that anyone who has a black maid should provide a separate bathroom for the maid. She backs this up by frequent declarations that Negroes are subject to different diseases and have a different immune system. Utter nonsense of course, but just one of many ideas promulgated to justify a segregationist, white supremacist way of life.
The constant sense of jeopardy is reinforced by switching point of view every few chapters, so that similar events, and a slightly different take on similar fears, overlap and reinforce each other. Somehow, she manages to make this work without it feeling repetitive. In some ways the naivety of the characters adds to the suspense, because the reader can so easily imagine how they might get found out at any moment.
The three of them survive, and the book is a success, which brings in some money and frees each of them in different ways from the worst of their situations. The world is not changed, but we know, reading it now, that it does change, and meanwhile they survive.
I accidentally watched The Blind Side, a Sandra Bullock movie only a few weeks ago. In fact, it is so good that I watched it twice. In this story a black boy who is talented at football, is adopted by a white family who help to rescue him from desperate poverty. Eventually he goes to Ole Miss, the same University of Mississippi that James Meredith needed an armed guard to get into. What is even more remarkable is that his admission there, assisted by his adopted family, is questioned by the NAACP, who only half a life time ago had needed troops to get into the same university. Perhaps most remarkable of all, nothing is made of this astonishing contrast.
If The Help had been written in the time that it portrays, it is impossible to know how it would have been received. I remember the writings of Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis. Books that were polemic and revolutionary at the time and almost got their authors killed. This is very different, because it espouses no particular political direction and offers no solution. What it does do is tell it how it was, and that is worth remembering.
I also read a Commentary on the Help, a WikiFocus book by George Andersen. This is a total waste of money. All it does is tell the story in a few pages, converting a great piece of showing into a boring bit of telling, to use the creative writing jargon. I had assumed that there would be some commentary involved, expression of opinions, critical review, context setting. Not a word of it. A few paragraphs about how well the book sold, reference to some reviews and a paragraph about a film adaptation, supposedly coming out next month. That is the last time I will but a WikiFocus book.