Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Helping of The Help

I'm back in London and finished reading Kathryn Stockett's book "The Help" last week.   I highly recommend it to everyone.

It's a fictional story about the lives of African American housekeepers in the South (U.S.) in the 1960's.   This is Stockett's first book, and like Harper Lee, she's written a masterpiece on racial tensions through the lives of everyday individuals.  "The Help" is what I call an "all emotions" book because it will make you laugh, cry, wonder, get mad, etc.  And those are the best kinds IMO because they mirror our own reality.

The format of the book is quite clever.  Stockett's protagonist Skeeter is an aspiring writer who teams up with the African American help in Jackson, Mississippi to secretly write a tell-all book about what it's like to work for their white employers.

It's interesting how in an unequal world, there could be so much love and hate between whites and blacks.   And through it all, African Americans persevered.  There's a shocking moment when readers find out about the Terrible Awful, but I couldn't help myself but to cheer for Minny in her act of retribution towards evil Hilly.

I don't think "The Help" is a story about the South.  I think it's a story about humanity.  We have a peculiar tendency to create artificial lines.  And this is true around the world.  In India, there was the caste system.  In South Africa, there was apartheid.  Even in London, a city sometimes called the capital of the world, there are unspoken feelings that Eastern Europeans are lower class.   Why do we do this?

I don't know the answer.  But my hypothesis is that we create barriers and put other people in boxes because it allows us to more quickly understand the world.  Humans often rely on deductive reasoning, meaning we make conclusions based on generalizations.  And we also think and learn in analogies.  This can help us quickly indentify what Little Samuel's parents do, what kind of car they drive, and where they live based on outward appearances.  It doesn't make it right though.

What's the solution?  This terrible problem we have isn't something that will go away in my lifetime, I believe. The best solution is a mindset.  If we individually start treating people like people instead of treating them as X people or Y people, it'll be a start.

I like to know what the author's motivation is when reading their work.  Stockett grew up in Jackson and was inspired to write this book based on her own childhood experience.  In the acknowledgement section, she wrote, " belated thanks to Demetrie McLorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us, and thank God, forgiving us."

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