Posted on March 23rd, 2011
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.