I went out for a special coffee date with a dear friend about a week ago. When she asked me what I was reading, I answered, “Nothing! It is driving me crazy!” She quickly recommended a book she had recently enjoyed. Two days later, another dear friend asked me if I was reading anything interesting, and when I answered in the negative, without a word she dashed out of the room. A moment later, she returned with a book that made me literally squeal aloud. It was the same exact book my other friend said I should read. The name of the book? The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
I won’t go into a big recap of the story line, but just know that it is set in Mississippi in 1962 and explores the relationship between white women and the black women they employ to raise their babies, clean their houses, do their laundry, keep their secrets and cook their meals, amongst other things.
I burned through this book in three nights, staying up way too late even though I knew I would be up in the middle of the night with a daughter who was learning to stay in her toddler bed (or learning how to come out of it, depending on your point of view). Even though I knew I would spend at least a couple hours sleeping on the floor next to her bed come 2am, it was worth the sleep deprivation.
The characters are complex, much like the situations in which they find themselves…even if they seem oblivious to the complexities. The interactions between the two sides are not easy to stomach, as my “modern” sensibilities are offended by the way the white women speak to and treat those in their employ. But even in the midst of that messed up hierarchy, there are those few women who form a genuine bond, and some change their previously held views — or maybe more accurately, they realize and adopt a well-considered view rather than just going along with the way things have always been.
The book flows well with plenty of action and dialog to move it along, and though it raises difficult issues, it allows the story speak for itself. There are one or two characters that I wonder about, mostly why are they included, but I’ve come to think they serve best as a foil to other characters, allowing the other characters to express their side of the story. Even the one incident with what can only be described as a random flasher, serves to reveal a different side of one character who seems one-dimensional beforehand. There is domestic abuse, rampant racism, gender inequality, and discrimination of all sorts. But the story ends up being about overcoming these obstacles, or functioning within them in the hopes of telling the real tale.
I found it almost impossible NOT to ask what this book, set in 1962, says about current society. Are things so different? Are we not still segregated to a certain extent? Are there not still people who are looked upon as second-class, asked to work silently at those jobs that much of middle-class America would consider beneath them? Just get the job done and go home, right? But what if “home” is not originally this country and that person has entered illegally? Is it then fair to treat that person as less human? Less deserving of a fair wage or legal rights? Hey, listen, I’m just askin’. I don’t have any hard, fast answers here, but is it hard to miss the parallels between the treatment of blacks under southern Jim Crow laws before the Civil Rights Movement and the debate going on currently about immigration (do I dare mention the law passed in Arizona?). I wonder what we’ll have to say about it when we look back 50 years from now.