Thursday night, I’ll head to a much awaited meeting of my book club. I’ve gotten the definite impression that this week is out to get me, and I’m hoping that getting together with the ladies and talking about the excellent selection for this month will turn that around and allow me to coast right on in to the weekend.
I finished The Help before Christmas. Since then, I’ve thought about what to post more than once. In some ways, I’m embarrassed to admit how much the descriptions of life in the South of the 1960s rang true to me. I lived so much of them while growing up during the next decade in deep East Texas, an area one of my high school friends recently referred to as, “behind the pine curtain.” It’s a beautiful area of rolling hills, amazingly tall pine trees, red dirt farms, and more than its fair share of people whose necks match that soil.
Divisions in our town were clearly drawn, and in retrospect race colored an amazing amount of my childhood experience, an experience that included, for lack of a better word, the help. Doris and Moses worked for our family for years, Doris as our maid and Moses as the gardener. A disclaimer for those who’ve read the novel–no, we did not have separate bathroom facilities for them. That piece of information floored me. Perhaps some progress was made over the years?
But progress only goes so far. And the rules, unwritten and often unspoken, weren’t easy to break. Just ask the interracial couple whose home was firebombed when I was in high school–in the 80s no less. But back in the 70s, even though I was a young child, I couldn’t help but pick up on the way those rules played out. Moses never entered our house unless my father was home. Instead, he’d come to the door to talk to my mother about various garden tasks, sometimes asking for a glass of water to be drunk outside but never accepting her invitation to come in out of the summer heat. He understood white women’s unspoken fear of black men. He lived within the boundaries that fear created. Doris, on her part, refused to ride next to my mother on the drive home from work. I have clear memories of my mother attempting to break this particular rule, stating that I should sit in the back and let the grownups sit up front. Only to have Doris reply, “Oh, no ma’am. I’m fine just where I am.” Eventually my mother gave up.
Giving up is the easiest thing to do in the face of such strong social conventions, a point that makes the lead characters in The Help so intriguing. Kathryn Stockett gets the South and its voice, its rules and the consequences for breaking them. The stories she weaves of the black maids, the women they work for, the children they raise, and the brave steps they take to shake up life as they know it, make this novel hard to put down. So hard that I found myself camped out on the family room sofa at 2:00 a.m. just so I could find out how those stories would end.
Have you read The Help? If not, go get it. If so, tell me what you thought.