When this book hit the shelves in 2009 and then the NY Times bestseller list shortly thereafter, I knew that it would, at some point, end up on my nightstand. But reading a book that so boldly approached the history of black help in white homes made me...uncomfortable. Revisiting that period in history seemed counter-productive. It didn't make sense that we would drag it all back up again when we are still pushing a certain portion of our population to accept a black man as president. Why not let it go, move forward, put it all behind us?
This is 2011, after all.
Except that this was a story that needed to be told.
I grew up in the middle class homes of my divorced parents. The only help we had was the house cleaner Mama Virgo hired for a short time. And she was white, well paid, and had it somewhat easy (since Mom would make me clean my room before she came...I still don't understand that). Being the brat that I was, I would sometimes refer to her as the maid, which would cause Mom to hiss at me that she was not the maid. If Mom had been living in Jackson, MS in the 1960's, she would have most assuredly given all of her help yearly raises and vacation days.
Perhaps most startling to me was that the book does take place in the 1960's...not the 30's or even 50's. And, come to find out, there are still homes in the deep south who employ help on a regular basis. So, if we open this book with the preconceived notion that we are about to read about a slice of the past, that would be quite wrong. Granted, we have integrated and the flagrant white violence against a black population is less, but this lifestyle still exists.
1. It is a fast read. And by that, I don't mean the book is 100 pages of large type. I mean there aren't many words that I had to look up or sentences I had to read twice. The only stumbling block for some may be the way in which Stockett writes the maids' stories. She writes it exactly as they would say it. If I had read this book 2 years ago, I may have struggled with that. I may have even given up after the second chapter and never looked back. But I've been in Georgia for 18 months and, well, I actually prefer to read it as it is written. It makes perfect sense. She could have used the word "y'all" a little more though. Everyone knows our babies say "y'all" before "mama" or "daddy".
2. For someone who knew absolutely nothing about the life of the help in white homes, this is a decent introductory course. I believe that Stockett shows both sides fairly. There were white women who spread lies that sharing toilets with the help could result in "black diseases" and white women who fought against every one of those lies. The maids, although always subservient to their employer, were sometimes like family and sometimes considered it "just another job". It was a black and white world with infinite shades of gray and Stockett showed those shades as best she could within the cover of a 400-page book.
3. The characters are rich, complex, and completely believable. Being from a small town in (we consider Kentucky the south, by the way) the south, and being around the same age as the women in the book, I can see how life could revolve around the Junior League and an annual benefit. I can see how high school cliques would come home to nest and build their empire, working hard to raise the next generation of popular girls. Having it all in the 1960's in Jackson, MS meant marrying during or right out of college, producing 2 healthy and beautiful babies, and having help to host extravagant brunches and the weekly bridge game. For a few of my high school classmates, that still holds true today. Not judging...just saying that it's a lifestyle that some have chosen. More power to them.
But Skeeter represents a different perspective. A woman can also finish college, move (reluctantly) back home, and devote time to a cause that is going to result in a rippling effect for many years to come. There may or may not be a man. There may or may not be children. That part isn't quite so important. It's an alternate lifestyle with different priorities. So, not only is the book about the racial divide, it's also about the choices we women make and the courses our lives take as a result of those choices. We can get married or not. We can have babies or not. We can care and love those babies or not. We can create an environment of love, respect, and inclusion or not. We can question outdated beliefs and stand up for injustices....or not.
And now the cons...
1. This book does not cover the sexual harassment that, I'm sure, the help endured at the hands and lips of the men of the house. Not once does a husband make a comment or grab a handful. Perhaps Stockett, who herself had a maid growing up in Jackson, MS, didn't see that in her house. But I'm sure she is aware that it occurred. Whatever reasons she had for omitting it from the book, it is still an unfair exclusion and leaves an unfortunate gap in the big picture.
2. There is a fairly graphic, pretty disturbing miscarriage scene in the book and the movie. Fortunately, I had been warned by several people about it and could see it coming from a mile away. So, to be completely honest, I didn't read about 6 pages of this book. I just can't read that stuff right now and I'm not sure that I ever will. When you live it, you certainly don't need to read about it. And that might not be a con for many readers. It doesn't exactly fit the "con" category for me, either...but I wonder if it was completely necessary. The character's miscarriage does need to happen in order for the rest of her behavior to make sense and for the rest of her story to unfold, I'm just not so sure it needed to be in that kind of detail (because while flipping through to find the next scene, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the middle).
3. All of the black men in this book are abusive or absent. And maybe that's how it was in Mississippi in the 1960's, but not all men are the same and that's a fact regardless of skin color or decade. While Stockett was painting both the white women and black women with a brush of redemption, she could have added a few strokes to the maids' husbands. They are men, after all...with fragile egos and all that.
There is certainly plot and character development in this book. It's not slow or boring. However, it is also predictable. But wouldn't a book about the past have to be somewhat predictable? We already know how it's going to end. It's all going to boil over with Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the way and people are either going to have to adapt or get out of the way. The best lens through which to read this novel is that of historical fiction. A lot of it happened, some of it has been embellished, and it's all entertaining. There is a happy ending, which we all know still hasn't really happened for some parts of the deep south, and you will most likely turn the last page with a warm and fuzzy feeling. It's a novel. Not a textbook.
Favorite line (when Aibileen is talking about the different variations of grits she makes for Baby Girl): That's all a grit is, a vehicle. For whatever it is you rather be eating.
Isn't that the damn truth?