How much of our character is shaped by the time and the era into which we are born? Can we truly think for ourselves without being outcast from the society in which we live or is our only choice to comply with the current times if we want a normal, happy life?
There are far too many periods and places in history that would turn any bright sunny day into a cloud of darkness and despair, if we had the misfortune of living in one. The 1940s in Germany during the unspeakable horrors against humanity for one. The 1790s in France during the horrific period of the French Revolution for another. The 1980s in Tehran at the height of the Iranian Revolution and a reality of my own childhood, for yet another.
And the era in which Kathryn Stockett’s brilliant novel is set: Mississippi, USA, the 1960s, for yet another.
I imagine that it would have been extremely difficult to live during that time regardless of your race; it would have been horrendous to go through it as a black person for obvious reasons, and for this one, I feel so much compassion for the unfortunates who were at this time and place. And it would have been gruesome in a different way to go through it as a white person after coming to terms with the ugliness of the beliefs of the era.
As you choose your next reading, I want to urge you to be very open with your choices. Let me recap the ways I have misjudged books by “their covers”: Initially, I felt that the overall plot from Life of Pi would not interest me: An Indian boy, a tiger, the Pacific Ocean, all book long? Kidding me! Right? I have my friend Arvind Devalia to thank – he handed me the book in his London home and said, read it! It is now one of my most favorite books.
Similarly, when I scanned the plot for The Help, I’m afraid it simply did not appeal to me, and this time, Mommy gets the credit for handing me the book and saying the movie was good, she thinks I’d like the story.
And I loved it. I simply loved and adored the stories, the writing, the dialogues, and the unfolding of what was both sad and happy, tragic and full of hope for the future.
This is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. It took her 5 years to complete it but she has set the bar very, very high. She has sold more than 3 million copies. How much do you have to believe in your goals and dreams to dedicate 5 years of your life with neither the promise of success nor the hope of recognition and rewards? She is commendable from her compelling reason for creating this book – she wanted to tell her own maid things she never got a chance to say – all the way to her delicious writing style and her impressively accurate knowledge about the intricacies of language as spoken by traditionally black versus white races.
She has touched a nerve, one in a powerfully positive way and a few in strongly negative ways. Even with nearly 5000 reviews on Amazon, she has her fair share of 1-star reviews, with readers criticizing her on a personal level, and attacking her approach to story-telling as unbalanced and unjustified. Every reader is entitled to their own opinion – Heavens knows I have my radical views on popular books – but it shows you how much of a risk Kathryn chose to take with her topic, and yet it was a risk that has rewarded her handsomely in hindsight and one that positions her as both a smart and strong author.
The Help is about stories from the deep South, the heart of Mississippi in the 1960s, and the relationships between white women and the black women who served as their maids. It is the smallest details, the shortest dialogues, and the quietest whispers that weave her story. From these subtle yet powerful details, an unforgettable plot emerges and it is impossible to not love the main characters who move it forward. The three of them take turns in telling us the stories: the idealistic Skeeter, the kind-hearted Aibileen and feisty Minny and you are lucky if you can put this down longer than a few hours at a time.
The obvious is of course what makes it compelling: Racial discrimination. How could this be? How could we as Americans be so ignorant to believe that race alone warranted separation and second class treatment of human beings in the 1960s, not the cave era!!!
Sigh, there are no good answers. Only stories like this to read, to learn about what our country was like not so long ago, and as a result of this reinforcement, to become better as individuals and as a society. But racial wars know no end it seems; racial injustice goes on today, some of it still in America and a great deal in other parts of the world. Some of it is violent and brutal, some of it is subtle and beneath the surface.
Take Iran for instance. Not only is the government extremely cruel and gruesome to society at large, it chooses to be particularly harsh to certain races. It tortures as it pleases, it strips people of their bare human rights on a daily basis, and it does this right now, in the 21st century, without any intention of stopping. Just lovely, huh? On top of that, while not violent and physically harmful to others, the rich and well-to-do Iranians in general are a master at thinking their “Persian” race to be on top of the world, with just about every other race beneath them. Trust me, I grew up in this culture and I find it shocking and horrifying every single time, and since I am of Iranian heritage, I can say this without any qualms but alas, I digress.
Racial discrimination is a terrible disease, and perhaps one day it will be completely eradicated not just in legal books and court rooms but by a real change of heart and mind in those ignorant people who silently view other races as lesser than whole. And that, my friends, is the most difficult change to bring about.
Reading is the best pastime for the mind! See more book reviews here: In Print.
The Help is an intoxicating read; it is an awakening, an inspiration, an education with an element of entertainment. There were too many lines that I wish to remember, but here are a few favorites:
“And if your friends make fun of you for chasing your dream, remember–just lie.”
“I wash my hands, wonder how an awful day could turn even worse. It seems like at some point you’d just run out of awful.”
“You a smart girl. You a kind girl. Mae Mobley. You hear me?”
“Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, “Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?””
“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”
“Ugly live up on the inside. Ugly be a hurtful, mean person.”
“That’s what I love about Aibileen, she can take the most complicated things in life and wrap them up so small and simple, they’ll fit right in your pocket.”
“Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life. Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling.”
“All my life I’d been told what to believe about politics, coloreds, being a girl. But with Constantine’s thumb pressed in my hand, I realized I actually had a choice in what I could believe.”
“Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.”
“they say it’s like true love, good help. you only get one in a lifetime…..there is so much you don’t know about a person. i wonder if i could’ve made her days a little bit easier, if I’d tried. if i’d treated her a little nicer…..”
Your turn to share your thoughts on The Help, if you have read it, or on reading a book that has impacted you. Start our conversation in a comment below.