My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you haven’t heard about the book, “The Help” – and the subsequent movie based on the novel – then you probably aren’t a woman between the ages of 18 and 60 living in America. This novel has swept across the country reigniting emotions left lingering since 1960’s. I believe this is a must-read for any young adult woman. As my mother gave me Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” as a rite of passage at the age of eight, “The Help” should become a new standard for growing up as a teenager girl in America. I only wish we could get the boys to read it, too.
Without giving this amazing storyline away, “The Help” is about Skeeter, a young college graduate in 1960 who returns to Jackson, Mississippi to look at her hometown with the detached eyes of an outsider. The old way of doing things doesn’t feel right for Skeeter anymore; and as she and the world around her evolves, she tries to make sense of it all through writing. To help her make sense of it all, Skeeter enlists the domestic staffs of her friends.
Stockett writes in her own words at the end of the novel that her favorite line in the book is about women realizing “that not much separates us. Not nearly as much as I thought.” Stockett wrote her novel while living in New York, after having grown up in Jackson, Mississippi. I think it is probably that separation from her hometown, much like Skeeter’s time away in college that gives Stockett the perspective and the courage to write such a personal story; even if nothing in this book comes from her real life. While anyone in America can say that they have experienced racial tension, those who have grown up in the South are particularly attune to “the line between blacks and whites” as the very culture and history of the area is at the heart of America’s racial divide. And that is why I’m grateful to Stockett for having the courage to write this book even today.
I have to admit that I grew up pretty sheltered from racial tensions. There was one black student in my high school. He had been adopted by white parents and had been in school with us since we were children. It was all we ever knew so we accepted him and the situation willingly. But I didn’t understand how sheltered an existence I lived. I remember reading in high school history class how upset the rest of country was that John F. Kennedy – a Catholic – might be elected president. As I looked around my Boston suburban classroom almost every student was Catholic; and most were Irish to boot. I couldn’t understand what the hubbub had been about.
It wasn’t until I was a senior in college in West Virginia that I understood the capacity for humans to hate anyone who is different from themselves. On a hot summer night in 1990, I remember standing in the dorm looking around the valley to a hillside where the KKK burned three crosses. The fear of the Devil touched my heart. Looking out that window, I remember as if it were yesterday, thinking “haven’t we made any progress?” But the evidence was on the hillside across from me; some have, but some have not.
It Could Happen Today
Stockett does this country a great service because she does not let this topic fade into the background. She has brought a difficult topic back into discussion in a positive way. She has fulfilled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream of pursuing peace as he stated in his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech,
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
I believe that Dr. King would be proud of the contribution to the cause that Stockett has created. And while many things have changed since 1963, for example, Stockett didn’t have to publish this book anonymously. There is much more that needs to happen. I keep thinking of the proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
In 1999, Bruce Springsteen pens his folk song “American Skin (41 Shots)” about the police shooting that killed Amadou Diallo, a 22 year old black West African immigrant who was reaching for his wallet. Springsteen sings:
“On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight…
You can get killed just for living in your American skin”
These few lines clearly show that some things have not changed since Dr. King described those who marched for civil rights as “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality… the veterans of creative suffering.” Maybe the reasons for persecution have been restricted but the penalty and brutality is just as harsh today as it was in the 60’s.
The story of “The Help” could just as easily have been set in the present in Southern California or Texas between Whites and Mexican Americans. Or across America as Muslims and Islamic Americans try to survive after the tragedy of 9/11. Can’t we focus on what unites us? It is so much easier to see what makes us the same then hang on to what makes us different.
We have a lot more work to do, but with Stockett’s contribution we are one step closer to Dr. King’s parting vision:
….when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
- Stockett, Kathryn, “The Help” ; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; February 10, 2009; ISBN13: 9780399155345
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” Speech (Text): http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/17…
- Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” Lyrics: http://www.lyricsdepot.com/bruce-springs…
- Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin” story behind the song: http://consequenceofsound.net/2009/03/ro…