Last summer while on jury service, a fellow juror (and comparative stranger) seeing me with book in hand, took me to one side and told me I should read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. When I’d had the same advice from several others (whose reading tastes I knew better!) I eventually took it and am happy to pass on the recommendation.
For anyone who doesn’t know this book, it’s set in Mississippi in the early sixties and tells how three women (two black and one white) risk everything to publish an account of what it’s like to be ‘the help’ in a white household. For the white woman the motivation is the closeness of her friendship with her own black maid and the guilt she later feels after the maid is sacked. The risk is the loss of her place in local society still intent on maintaining the status quo of coloured segregation, to the point of providing separate toilets for the servants. For the black women, who want their stories (good as well as bad) to be told, exposure could lose them their jobs and bring the threat of violence to them and their families.
This is a rattling good read with diverse and colourful characters, and humour as well as tragedy. It appeals to me particularly because (like Madmen) the period is on the borders of my own experience. Nostalgia for Jacki O suits and flouncy skirts goes hand in hand with memories of KKK, Martin Luther King and the night that Kennedy died. We all live through history, but to look back and see how it has coalesced over a lifetime is particularly fascinating.
My knowledge of earlier American history is not so good, and so when I saw The Help described as ‘the flip side of Gone with The Wind‘, and with my book group requiring a classic to be read this month, I decided to get to grips with the antebellum South, and a story known only from hazy memories of the film remake I watched as a student (nicely reviewed here.)
As someone who relishes the sparsity of modern writing, it took me a few chapters to get into the flow of those luxuriant descriptions and a plot that’s ready to digress into chunks of back story. But the advantage of a more leisurely pace is that there’s plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and enter the world so beautifully recreated by the author. So picture me now, languishing beneath the shade trees, sighing with Scarlett over the injustices of life and love.
So much for ‘compare and contrast’. But the biggest gap between these great books is not so much in the history (1860 and 1960 have a surprisingly similar feel) so much as the point of view of the writer. If Margaret Mitchell ignored the slavery issue, this is something she could do in 1936. Fifty years later, GWTW could probably not have been written, never mind published.
These are the years that change my world.