The Week in Books 2009, No. 42

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is definitely going to be in my Top Ten books for this year. My childhood friend and camp counselor the incomparable Ainsley recommended this book, and her good taste is duly noted. The book chronicles the story of a group of white women and their black maids in Jackson, Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Although the topic is difficult and it would have been easy to wield too hard or too soft of a hammer, Kathryn Stockett did a masterful job of telling the story of the maids in their own voices. I have rarely read a book that handled dialect in a more realistic and respectful manner. I adore books that make me laugh AND cry, and this is one of them.

Stockett somehow managed to capture the pain of inequality and how it coexisted with love – how these black women could love these white families and pour themselves out for them, only to be accused of stealing the silver and told they are too dirty to use the guest bathroom in the house, or how some of the white women bucked society and risked their safety to help the black women or put their maid’s kids through college. This is a somewhat difficult book to read, I think because the subject matter is complicated and difficult.

Although my family is from the south and I’ve studied a lot of history, I always find it startling to read about historical situations from the perspective of a personal narrative. I was shocked while reading this book by the extent of racial prejudice and was struck by the immediacy of slavery in the 1960s. At one point one of the maids is asked if she always knew she would be a maid. She said yes because her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave. That is history you reach out and touch – I thought about my own grandmothers and how I know them and realized that although three generations may have passed, that is not a lot of time for change.

I would highly recommend The Help – it is an excellent, well written book on an important topic.

Same Kind of Different As Me is a double memoir telling the story of a wealthy Texas art dealer and a black homeless man and how their lives were linked and changed by their friendship. I thought the book got off to a slow start, but the sections of the homeless man’s story were really fascinating so I kept reading. The homeless man had been born and raised in a share cropping situation in Louisiana and his stories about that life startled me – I could hardly believe that more than 100 years after the end of slavery some people were still living under what was essentially the same system. As the memoir went on, and the lives of the two men were linked by the faith and vision of the art dealer’s wife, I felt like the book gained momentum and became much more compelling. I cried at the end. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say there was a lot of undeserved suffering borne with inspiring patience and grace.

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