Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Today I finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

I read it because Larry Brooks was undertaking an analysis if the structure of The Help on his blog StoryFix.  I was aware that the book had been immensely successful but had put it in the category of Chick Lit and wasn't about to be caught dead seen reading it.  (Bad for the macho image don't you know.)

I was an Air Force Brat.  My parents and grandparents were from Texas and I visited frequently.  But I did not grow up in the South.  I came back to the States after I graduated from high school in 1962.  I attended Baylor in Waco, Texas.  I saw segregation in action at that time and it was very different from my totally integrated life on a military base.  I was interested in other things and didn't think about segregation much. 

I was at Baylor when the first "colored" student enrolled.  It was during summer school and he was a music major.  He could play the piano like nothing I had ever heard before.  There was a grand piano in the lobby in front of the cafeteria and he would play the piano as we stood in line for lunch.  I didn't think much of it other than he really can play that piano.  I didn't notice that white students were upset.  As I think back, they may have not known he was a student.  They may have thought he was the day's entertainment.

I married above my station.  My wife's family were not wealthy but were well off.  They had a maid to clean their house.  So after we married and moved to Shreveport, my wife had a maid to clean our house and I had a yardman to mow.  The maid came and cleaned for a couple of hours every day.  At the time our child was born we began having a maid every day, all day and full-time maids were a part of our household for the next thirty years.  I think the Seventies must have been years of further change as I did not observe the abuses detailed in The Help.  When I talked with my wife about this, she said I was wrong, that there were still people who treated their maids terribly.

Shreveport, LA and Jackson, MS are interchangeable.  In the Sixties life was the same in both cities.  The same kinds of people doing the same kinds of things for the same reasons based on the same heritage.  The Help could have been set in Shreveport as easily as it was in Jackson.  And for this reason alone it was an interesting book - a trip back in time.

The only exception from Shreveport I found was that I know the "mature" leaders of Shreveport's Junior League would have never let an 'early twenties' Hilly be the League's President.  My wife was in the League and I've known a number of the Presidents.  They were competent leaders and strove for many years to attain the top leadership position.  They would not have given it to a relatively new member. I suspect that the ladies of Jackson wouldn't have either.   Otherwise I found the story 'spot on'.   And I don't begrudge the author for the stretch since it made the story better.

I read thrillers, mysteries, spy, westerns, and private eye novels.  I want twisty plots, action, violence and a little sex thrown in for good measure.  The Help didn't have a single page of these requirements.   I don't read character driven novels like The Help.  So, I was surprised by how the book's characters captured me.  Yes, I knew people like all of the characters in the book but that wasn't it.  Stockett made me want to know more about these characters.  She made me care.

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how she did it.  But, I recognize this is really good storytelling!

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