Sunday, January 16, 2011

“The Help” - A great story and it’s all right here in black and white


Recently, my friend Candace asked me where the book reviews were on the teepee, she missed them.  (I tossed them aside when I moved the teepee here in October, I didn’t think anyone paid much attention to ‘em.)  Anyway, I was so surprised & flattered by her remark, and seeing how I just finished this wonderful novel and it’s Martin Luther King Day tomorrow…

I can always tell how good a book is by the length of time it takes me to finish it; the better the book, the slower I read.  And that’s precisely what happened here, with “The Help”, by Kathryn Stockett.  The story takes place in Jackson Mississippi, in 1962.  It revolves around an assortment of self-important Southern women with too much time on their hands, their black (in fact the blacker the better) maids & the times, ‘cause they are a changin’.  While civil rights marches are taking place in Washington, the local Women’s League is pushing an initiative requiring all homes to install separate bathrooms “for their coloreds”.

The story is told from the perspective of three women—Abileen, a black woman in her fifties, her best friend Minny (who can’t keep from speaking her mind and losing every housekeeping job she gets in the process) and ‘Miss Skeeter’, a young white woman who has returned home from college and aspires to becoming a writer.  When Miss Skeeter discovers her family’s long-time maid Constantine has upped & moved to Chicago (and no one will tell her why), she’s inspired to write a book chronicling the stories of the black maids in her town.    (This will be no easy task; the Jim Crow laws of ‘Separate but Equal’ are in full force here, and the blacks in this town know their place.)

Abileen starts this book by summing up her life:  “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking & the cleaning.  I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime.  I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying & go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get outta bed in the morning.”  She’s currently maiding for the Lefolt family, loving & worrying over Mae Mobley, the preschool daughter of indifferent parents.  Abileen holds her & tells her “you is good, you is important” and shares “secret stories” of a man from Mars named Martian Luther King who “come to Earth to teach us a thing or two.  He has a head on top and a nose and mouth like us, but sometime people looked at him funny, and sometime they were downright mean.”   “Why Aibbee?” asks Mae Mobley.  “Because he was green.  But we alls the same inside, ain’t we.”

I found this picture online during my reading of ‘The Help’ and it reminded me of Abileen & Mae Mobley

Even though “The Help” is fiction (with enough sudsy drama to qualify as a ‘chick book’) I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the realties of the stories these women share with Miss Skeeter, both the good and the bad.  (Remaining with a family for a lifetime, only to be suddenly let go when some of the good silver turned up missing.)  So I went online & was surprised to read about the number of Southern people who’s primary caregiver was indeed their family’s own black housekeeper. The author herself says that much of this book came from her own childhood memories.

This book is much more though; it’s a curious look at the South in the early ‘60s, the social mores that still existed & surprising reminders of what segregation still was.  (If you were a black woman in a southern supermarket in 1963, you’d better be in a crisp white maids uniform.)   

And to think this was all in my lifetime, too.   (Click right here to go to the Amazon link for this wonderful novel.)

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