Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bookshelf: Kathryn Stockett


A month ago my mother called, we discussed mundane things, and then she HAD to read me an excerpt from the book she was reading, "The Help". I felt like everyone and their mother was reading this book and I wondered what it was about. My mother read a few sentences in her sharp Yankee accent (I never knew northerners had accents until I visited family in Chicago and was told by a neighbor of theirs that I talked funny. But for the record, unlike my father's side of the family, I do not have a Boston accent. My mother made sure of that when I was growing up.) and while I got the gist of what she was reading it just sounded funny in her voice. It's the equivalent of reading "Pride & Prejudice" with a full Boston accent. Think about how wrong that would sound.

Anyways, I decided to accept "The Help" when she was done reading and began it a week ago. On a sidenote, I have not finished reading "Cleo" because I know I'm getting to the emotional end and I just don't have the energy for an hour of sniffling right now. But I will get to it soon.

Kathryn Stockett's "The Help" is the story of three women in Jackson, Mississipi in the 1960's. Two are black, one is white. The white woman, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, is gangly and not quite beautiful and has grown up priviledged. When the book begins she is in her early twenties and still living at home on her parents' cotton farm with no marriage prospects on the horizon. Every week she goes to play bridge with her girlfriends and writes the newsletter for the ladies' junior league. Her life is routine and what I would consider really boring. Her mother gets on her case about her appearance and dating prospects and Skeeter longs for something more, namely to be a writer in New York. Eventually she gets an idea, a dangerous idea for the time and location of the story, to write a compilation of stories about what it's like to be a black maid for white southern women. Enter Aibileen.

Aibileen is a maid for Skeeter's longtime friend Elizabeth. She cooks, she cleans, she raises the children and she's treated like she's less than nothing. But even though Elizabeth is rude and thoughtless to her, Aibileen raises Elizabeth's daughter, Mae Mobley, as if she's her own child, secretly teaching her that color doesn't matter, it's what's inside that counts, and giving her so much love.

Then we have Minny who's got such a mouth on her. She can barely keep herself employed because she has so much hate and digust in her (and rightfully so) that often her mouth opens and words come out before she has the chance to think about the consequences. But she makes the best cakes in town and her cooking is what always helps her get back on her feet.

Under the cover of night Skeeter drives to the black side of town and sits in Aibileen's kitchen hearing story after story of what it's like to be the help in a time when racial tensions are at the breaking point. They all risk their jobs, their reputations, and the lives of not only themselves but their families as well to get the stories down and shared.

What made me appreciate and love this story was the authenticity of the language. People don't always speak in properly structured sentences. It's just the way it is. And in the south especially, they shorten words and pronounce things differently that in other regions. Kathryn Stockett got inside her characters' heads and wrote them how they truly would have thought and spoke. I

visited my grandparents in South Carolina a few years ago and could barely understand the cashier at the grocery store. And I have never been called ma'am so much in my life. But someone from Mississippi could come to Boston and not understand what we mean when we say any word with an R in it.

My favorite parts of the book were between Aibileen and Mae Mobley. They had such heartbreaking and tender moments together, and in their private moments you could almost forget about the invisible lines drawn between the white and blacks. Like when Mae Mobley was being potty trained and ran outside to go in the black bathroom because she had seen her go out there. As a child you idolize the person who treats you the best, shows you love, and without having learned the unsaid rules of race she was just following what she'd seen and thought was right.

I would recommend "The Help" to anyone (and I've already told a handful of people that they HAVE to read it) based on so many things. The writing is extraordinary, the subject matter is so important not to forget, and the relationships, while fiction, feel real. I especially appreciate the little personal note at the back of the book in which Stockett describes her own relationship with her maid growing up. I have a feeling a lot of the story was taken from real life experiences and feelings.

Please go out and read "The Help". You will be so glad you took a trip to the deep south.

On a personal note, a little over a week ago I finished the first draft of my next book. It's the fourth that I've written although only one is published. Isn't that a funny thing to say, that I've written four books? Without a book deal or hard copies on my shelf it really just feels like I'm ten years old writing silly stories about things I don't know about but only imagine. So it doesn't feel like I've really accomplished anything extraordinary. I mean just walk into B&N and see how many books are on the shelves. There are thousands of authors who have written more than four books and they've all been published. So really, what have I done?
I'm in a low spin of the writing rollercoaster right now, if you couldn't tell. I just feel like a kid writing in her journal with big dreams. Anyways, Molly and Robby (my two beloved cheerleaders and friends) are going to read the first draft, tear it to shreds and tell me what works and what's crapola. And then I'll piece together what's left and fill in the blanks. So here's to the next few weeks of editing. Barf.

Happy reading!

1 comment

  1. Who said anything about ripping to shreds? I plan on praising and praising some more!


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