Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Bookenders book group will meet on Wednesday, November 17 at 7 p.m. to discuss The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Everyone is invited to attend. If you have read this book and loved it like we have, please come and join us!

The Help is about a young white woman in the early 1960s in Mississippi who becomes interested in the plight of the black ladies' maids that every family has working for them. 

Miss Eugenia Phelan ("Skeeter" to her friends) is a young woman of privilege who enjoys her fellow Junior Leaguers but sometimes finds their ways at odds with her own principles. She plays the part of her station in 1960s Mississippi but can't help feeling dissatisfied with keeping house and acting as recording secretary at league meetings, and yearns for something more.

Minny, Miss Celia, Aibileen, and Yule May are maids employed by Skeeter's friends. Each woman cooks, cleans, and cares for her boss's children, suffering slights and insults silently and sharing household
secrets only among themselves. 

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
In the wake of the Junior League push to create separate bathrooms for the domestic help within private homes, Skeeter contacts a New York book editor with an idea. Soon she's conducting secret meetings with "the help" to capture their stories for publication. It is a daring and foolhardy plan, one certain to endanger not only the positions but the lives of the very women whose stories she transcribes -- as well as her own. 

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates these extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women--mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends--view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't.

Kathryn Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, she moved to New York City where she worked in magazine publishing and marketing for nine years. She currently lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter. The Help is her first novel.

Like so many children from her youth in the south and reflective of her first novel, Stockett was raised by an African American domestic worker in lieu of an absentee mother.
In Her Own Words:
Our family maid, Demetrie, used to say picking cotton in Mississippi in the dead of summer is about the worst pastime there is, if you don't count picking okra, another prickly, low-growing thing.  Demetrie used to tell us all kinds of stories about picking cotton as a girl.  She'd laugh and shake her finger at us, warning us of it, as if a bunch of rich white kids might fall to the evils of cotton-picking, like cigarettes or hard liquor.

"For days I picked and picked.  And then I looked down and my skin had bubbled up.  I showed my Mama.  None of us ever seen sunburn on a black person before. That was for white people!"

I was too young to realize that what she was telling us wasn't very funny.  Demetrie was born in Lampkin, Mississippi in 1927.  It was a horrifying year to be born, just before the depression set it.  Right on time for a child to appreciate, in fine detail, what it felt like to be poor and female on a sharecropping cotton farm.

Demetrie came to cook and clean for my family when she was twenty-eight. My father was fourteen, my uncle seven.  Demetrie was stout and dark skinned and, by then, married to a mean, abusive drinker named Plunk.  She wouldn't answer me when I asked questions about him.  But besides the subject of Plunk, she'd talk to us all day.

Oh, how I loved to talk to Demetrie.  I'd sit in my grandmother's kitchen with her, where I went after school, listening to her stories and watching her mix up cakes and fry chicken.  Her cooking was outstanding.  It was something people discussed at length, after they ate at my grandmother's table.  You felt loved when you tasted Demetrie's caramel cake.

But my older brother and sister and I weren't allowed to bother Demetrie during her lunch break.  Grandmother would say, 'Leave her alone now, let her eat, this is her time,' and I would stand in the doorway itching to get back with her.  Grandmother wanted Demetrie to rest so she could finish her work, not to mention white people didn't sit at the table while a colored person was eating.

That was just a normal part of life, the rules between blacks and whites.  As a little girl, seeing black people in the colored part of town, even if they were dressed up or doing fine, I remember pitying them.  I am so embarrassed to admit that now.

I didn't pity Demetrie, though.  There were several years when I thought she was immensely lucky to have us.  A secure job in a nice house cleaning up after white Christian people.  But also because Demetrie had no babies of her own and we felt like we were filling a void in her life.  If anyone asked her how many children she had, she would hold up her fingers and say three.  She meant us, my sister Susan, my brother Rob and me.

My siblings deny it, but I was closer to Demetrie than any of the kids.  Nobody got cross with me if Demetrie was close by.  She would stand me in the mirror next to her and say, "You are beautiful.  You a beautiful girl," when clearly I was not.  I wore glasses and had stringy brown hair.  I had a stubborn aversion to the bathtub.  My mother was out of town a lot.  Susan and Rob were tired of me hanging around and I felt left over.  Demetrie knew it and took my hand and told me I was fine.

Scene from The Help, a movie currently being filmed.
My parents got divorced when I was six.  Demetrie became even more important to me then.  When my mother would go on her frequent trips, Daddy put us kids in the motel he owned and brought in Demetrie to stay with us.  I'd cry and cry onto Demetrie's shoulder, missing my mother so bad, I'd get a fever from it.

"This where you belong.  Here with me," she said and patted my hot leg.  Her hands were always cool.  I watched the older kids play cards, not caring as much that Mother was away again.  I was where I belonged.
The Help is fiction, by far and wide. Still, as I wrote it, I wondered an awful lot what my family would think of it, and Demetrie too, even though she was long dead.  I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person.  I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history.
I was truly grateful to read Howell Raines' Pulitzer Prize winning article, "Grady's Gift:"

I read that and I thought, how did he find a way to put it into such concise words?  Here was the same slippery issue I'd been struggling with and couldn't catch in my hands, like a wet fish.  Mr. Raines managed to nail it down in a few sentences.  At least I was in the company of others in my struggle.

Like my feelings for Mississippi, my feelings for The Help conflict greatly.  Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much.  I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.
I am afraid I have told too little.  Not just that life was so much worse, for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi.  But also, that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics, that I didn't have the ink or the time to portray.

But what I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially the 1960's.  I don't think it is something any white woman, on the other end of a black woman's paycheck, could ever truly understand.  But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.  In my book there is one line that I truly prize:
Wasn't that the point of the book?  For women to realize, we are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I'd thought.
I'm pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi working for our white family.  It never occurred to us to ask.  It was everyday life.  It wasn't something people felt compelled to examine.
I have wished, for many years, that I'd been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question.  She died when I was sixteen.  I've spent years imagining what her answer would be.  And that is why I wrote this book.

Discussion questions to enhance your reading:

1. Who was your favorite character? Why? 

2. What do you think motivated Hilly? On the one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can’t control her. Yet she’s a wonderful mother. Do you think that one can be a good mother but, at the same time, a deeply flawed person? 

3. Like Hilly, Skeeter’s mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter— and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives to Constantine is untenable; and most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter’s mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why? 

4. How much of a person’s character would you say is shaped by the times in which they live? 

5. Did it bother you that Skeeter is willing to overlook so many of Stuart’s faults so that she can get married, and that it’s not until he literally gets up and walks away that the engagement falls apart? 

6. Do you believe that Minny was justified in her distrust of white people? 

7. Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, that Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent, or taught? 

8. From the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, the hairshellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of “beauty” changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what’s the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent? 

9. The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this? 

10. Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships where people of color work for people who are white? 

11. What did you think about Minny’s pie for Miss Hilly? Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?

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