Here’s a book that makes me feel lucky. It puts into perspective the easiness of my life. I live in Canada, in a time when cultural diversity is considered a virtue. I’m white and middle-class and educated. I’m female, but I have a union-protected job in a female-dominated field… and now that I think about it, even my hobbies are female-dominated. I’m a Quaker, but no one even knows what that is around here, much less cares. I have never suffered due to discrimination.
[For the record, I can remember when I was young being made fun of and excluded sometimes… I was homeschooled and had freakishly long hair (both by choice) and was innately nerdy… but I can’t say I suffered. We’ve all had hurt feelings and we mostly manage to be okay.]
A lot of the books the GGG has read have made me feel lucky – A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Book of Negroes come to mind – but those didn’t have quite the same effect, because they seem so far removed. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, takes place less than fifty years ago, in the land of our southern neighbo(u)r – which makes the discrimination seem that much more incongruous, inappropriate, and downright idiotic.
It’s a story set in Jackson, Mississippi of the early 1960s, told from the perspective of three different women: two different black maids who work for white families, and one young white woman who sympathizes with them. It gets right into the lives of these characters. It brings home, humanizes, and makes real the craziness of that time and place – from the segregation of schools and bathrooms and water fountains – to the beatings and shootings. The characters and their situations are fictional, but completely plausible.
We were anywhere from annoyed to outraged while discussing this book: the snotty superiority of the young white Southern debutante types; the condescension and elitism that characterized their lives; the glaring double-standards involved with never sharing a stool or fork with a black person and yet having them make all your food and raise your children; and the appalling situations the black protagonists found themselves in, from unacceptable working conditions to fear for their lives and those of their families.
The worst parts to imagine were those that tangled up the black and white threads… like the little white girl who’s all confused because her teacher is telling her black people are bad, when she loves her black caregiver so much.
The GGG is all Canadian white women in our thirties. We weren’t there, but it’s scary to think that these barbaric, ignorant, sordid attitudes were de rigueur in the generations of our own parents and grandparents. How far have we really come since then? I know that even in North America, where we like to think we’re pretty civilized, there’s racism and discrimination and violence and people with backward ideas… but the main difference is, it’s no longer societally okay. Especially in Canada – archaic is not a strong enough word to describe the preposterousness of the idea that a government could condone the segregation and maltreatment of whole groups of its own people. The very fact that people can afford to get up in arms about the racism of the movie Avatar just proves that many of us have never seen real racism in action.
Kathryn Stockett is also white, although she is from Jackson, and her family had a black maid when she was a child. This is the kind of book I would feel unqualified to write as a white person, not wanting to appropriate a voice that wasn’t mine, but the GGG agreed Stockett has done an amazing job with this book. You feel such sympathy – even heartbreak – for the characters, and you admire them and ask yourself if you’d be that strong in the same situation. If you were a black maid back then, could you endanger yourself to help put the truth out there? If you were a white person, would you risk total ostracism (or worse) to act in a way you knew to be right?
Interestingly, Kathryn Stockett is being sued by a black woman who works for Stockett’s brother’s family. She claims that one of the characters has been modelled too closely on her and she is “embarrassed”. We were all confused by this: the character she’s talking about is a strong, smart, loving, brave, inspiring person. What’s embarrassing? (And how are you like her again, lawsuit lady?) Interestingly, this woman apparently does not feel a kinship with these characters, despite being (perhaps) the inspiration for one of them; if she did, she would see what a kick in the teeth this pettiness is to the real women who were “the help”.
So yeah, to sum up, the GGG unanimously enjoyed this book. Some of us even used the word love.
8 thoughts on “BANG Book Review: The Help, by Kathryn Stockett”
I love your book review… because I think I was in a sugar haze from Skye’s treats so I only remembered half of what we said! Also, I really must get around to watching Avatar so that I can read that other post… I’m heeding your spoiler alert for now….
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on that, but it was really interesting to read your take on racism here/there now/then. As one of those southern neighbors who lives in a part of the country that was segregated in our parents’ generation, I have to say that the sense that extreme racism is not that far away is pretty much omnipresent. But, honestly, it was even more present growing up in Detroit. I don’t know if that was the time or the place. If you read “American Apartheid” by Massey & Denton (not a novel–it’s demographic non-fiction) they say it’s place, due to the settlement patterns that slavery and segregation left behind.
On the other hand, my dissertation deals with racism in Canada, and the impression I’m getting is that the idealistic multicultural vision is not felt as strongly by everyone. Not that there’s anything even remotely approaching U.S. segregation, but there is discrimination, but it’s kind of hidden, so much more likely to be noticed by those who are discriminated against than the general public.
Oh, and at the time we were practicing segregation south of the Mason-Dixon line, Canada’s DIAND (not sure if it’s still called that) was doing some pretty awful culture-killing things in the Territories.
All that being said, I still think that Canada comes out on top in its efforts to support and encourage diversity. It helps to have a less bloodstained history, just as it helps to have a governmental commitment to diversity and immigration.
Hi Helen! Thank you for commenting. I would love to know more about your discoveries in your dissertation, because I have often had the impression that racism in Canada is a lot more insidious and thorny than in other places, partly because it’s hidden, like you say. Things “look” better but that doesn’t mean they are. When I lived in Toronto and worked at high schools there, the diversity was huge, but you did feel more tension… interestingly though, it seemed there was more tension associated with socio-economic differences than racial ones (though I’ll admit those two things sometimes coincided). We also have a lot of “borrowed” racism – gangs that didn’t used to exist in Canada but have spread here and brought their chips on their shoulders (and their firearms).
I’m not sure our history is any less bloodstained than yours – unless you’re going purely on numbers, since our population is so much smaller. Per capita, between First Nations crimes and treatment of Japanese Canadians after WWII, not to mention some tragic immigrant situations… we’re not qualified to be smug.
When I’ve visited the States, what I’ve noticed (not having studied this in any real way) is that you just feel the barriers more. Like, if you go into the “wrong” Burger King, you know it right away: this is not my territory and I’m not welcome here. But do you think there is still institutional racism, places where it’s socially acceptable to be racist – or perhaps more to the point, socially UNacceptable NOT to be?
I miss talking to you! I wish we could discuss this further…
You can borrow our copy, if you want!
Here’s a really interesting article along the same vein…written by a friend of Sarah Woodside.
I want to read the book now.
This is fascinating. She is talking about the exact questions I would want to ask her.
…same vein as the discussion, I mean; sounds quite different from the book.
Great article, loved the book too!