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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Ode to Kindness

Compelling, engaging, beautifully-written, evocative are some of the words that spring to mind when I think of Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help. 
The story is semi-autobiographical. Like Skeeter, one of the book’s three narrators, Stockett was a young writer, fresh out of college in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. She was raised by an African American maid such as the two from whose perspective the story is partially told. 
Employing an effective technique that is sure to rankle some readers who understandably would rather not be reminded of history’s humiliation, Stockett’s maids speak in a dialect that rings true.  She accurately captures the patois of the African American working class in the Deep South in the middle of the 20th Century: “Law” for “Lord;” “on” for “going to;” “set” for “sit;” “a” for “of;” – as in, “Law, I’m ‘on set myself down in one a them chairs.”  I heard my older relatives’ voices, and those of the older church folks in Detroit, where I grew up – many of whom had migrated there from the Deep South. 
Skeeter gets the idea to write a book, called Help, about what it’s like to be an African American maid in Jackson, Mississippi in the age of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.  At first, not one  maid is willing to share her story, fearing the likely repercussions. Pushed too far, though, some maids reluctantly agree to be interviewed for Skeeter’s book, under the condition of anonymity. 
Some stories are surprisingly heartwarming; there are beautiful examples of whites and blacks looking out for each other. But even in the best examples, there is no escaping the complete imbalance of power between the two groups, which makes one wonder, as Howell Raines, a favorite of Stockett’s, did, “whether what flowed between the two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.”
Most of the characters are well-developed, complex individuals with whom we can’t help but empathize. Minny is probably the most interesting character – so strong and so vulnerable; so flawed and yet so noble. We really want her and the other characters to find happiness. Except for Miss Hilly, who seems irredeemably evil. But what makes her so? There is a brief allusion to a strained relationship between Hilly and her mother. What was it about their relationship that made Hilly so mean? Or, was there another reason? It is as though Hilly is a caricature.  I can’t help but wonder if Stockett’s portrayal of Hilly is a missed opportunity to provide some insights into human motives.
Stockett is effective in pointing out the many ironies and hypocrisies of life in the South. The North doesn’t appear to be subjected to such scrutiny. Though they play somewhat important roles in the story, references to Chicago and New York seem wholly positive, except for the terse but supportive editor in New York who mentors Skeeter.
Of course, the North was no utopia. There was certainly more opportunity for African Americans there than in the South at the time, which was why my grandparents joined the great African American migration from the South to the North in the early to middle 20th Century. Sadly, they and others – black and white – found segregation and other prejudice and hypocrisy there, too; it just wasn’t as immediately visible as it was in the South. 
But back to the story, while an interesting technique, sometimes it’s hard to remember which of the three principals is telling the story, despite a helpful header at the beginning of each string of chapters told from the respective narrator’s perspective. Skeeter’s voice is easily decipherable and readable. At times, it is difficult to distinguish which of the two maids is speaking. They share roughly the same dialect and point of view. Aibileen, however, is the most profound and eloquent of all the characters when she explains her theory of race relations, which is that the lines of division that we think are there exist only in our minds: “All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

(Published in the Kayon, Summer 2011)

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