Thursday, May 5, 2011
My book club just read "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. The novel is told from the perspective of three characters -2 African American maids and a young white woman. The stories of the three women intertwine to explain how life in Jackson, Mississippi revolves around "the help"; yet they are always kept at a certain distance because of racial lines. It's a fascinating book that delves into many aspects of relationships - husband/wife, white women, African American women, mother/daughter, employer/employee. It shows how different people stand up for themselves in different ways in different situations. It makes you think. Would I stand up for myself against a group of my lifelong friends? Would I be able to stand up to my mother and forge my own path in life instead of following in her footsteps? Would I stand up to my husband who berates and beats me or would I just take it because I have no other choice? Would I confront my employer about her unfit and neglectful parenting? When do you stand up for yourself or the ones you love? What if your life would be in danger as a result of your actions? This book gives a unique and distinctive voice to each women and the challenges each one faces.
Looking back at these young twenty-something mothers, I have to smirk. They are stay-at-home moms with full time help. Just exactly what do they do all day? They don't clean, cook, do laundry, grocery shop or even raise their kids. At the other end of the spectrum is their "help". Ok, could I feel lazier reading this? These women take care of their own homes and families, then take a long bus ride to cook, clean, launder, grocery shop and raise someone else's children. They iron, polish silver, mend clothes, to name a few things I do rarely. And the kicker? They are paid a pittance for their service and treated rudely, with contempt and suspicion.
Discussing the book with 4 other women from vastly different backgrounds was enlightening and challenging. My dad has a friend he calls "the smartest man he knows". He doesn't talk the most because "he knows what he thinks. He wants to learn what others think". I learned a lot just by listening to these women. One book club member has a master's degree in American Studies. So, her insights have historical data and an academic twist. Another woman's mother grew up in the South during the book's time period. It was interesting how 4 women can read the same book and take away different messages and morals. We each discussed different parts that resonated with us or moved us. Again, we each had a special "take" on the material. We all agreed it was an amazingly well-crafted, honest, raw novel that made us all stop and wonder how far have race relations come since the early 1960's. Have they come as far as we think or hope?
The book made me ask myself several questions. Would I have been able to stand up to my employer who insisted I used a port-a-potty because of my skin color while, at the same, having me basically raise her child. Would I have been able to tell my Southern Belle mother that I would rather live in New York and be a write than a southern housewife and Junior League member? As a middle-aged maid with a house full of children, would I be able to pack up and leave my abusive husband with no job prospects or home of my own? Would I have been brave enough to sit down with a woman and write a powerful and controversial novel about what really happens between a white woman and her "help", while knowing that, if caught, I could be fired, jailed or killed? I'm not sure I am proud of my answer. I'm a bit of a coward. I would probably take a limited stand. I would not be bullied into doing something I knew was wrong but I would hesitate to make major waves. Each woman, in her own special way, found her voice and took major risks to take a stand for what they believed in. They saw what was wrong with the world they lived in refused to stay silent.
The maids really stood out to me as brave and true to themselves. In the face of being told daily that they are inferior, they never felt that way or believed it. They played the game to keep their jobs and provide for their families. But they never lost their pride, dignity or self-worth. They tolerated it because they wanted to provide a better life for their kids. They worked hard day and night, day in, day out so their sons and daughters could have opportunities never afforded to them. They did it without complaining.
This is my first book club experience and I'm enjoying it. I'm reading books I may not otherwise read. By discussing them with other women, I'm getting more out of the books. I'm also reading them in a new way. I read more carefully and thoughtfully. I find myself asking more questions as I read. I can't wait to start the next one.