I find it disconcerting that it is part of our nature – a part of our nature we must tame – to assess someone’s worth based on our own criteria as we were in a place to judge at all.
Literature is one of the ways we tutor ourselves to not only face this weakness but ruthlessly hone the skill to see everyone as loved of God and therefore of incalculable worth.
Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, is as richly drawn a piece of literary fiction as you can find on this theme. The book centers on the lives of three women – a young, white journalist and two African-American maids (the “help”). The setting is Jackson, Mississippi, in the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Here’s part of the teaser copy: “Twenty-two year old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962 Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy until she has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman who is raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her since the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business. but she can’t mind her tongue so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own. . .”
I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Stockett speak at Warwick’s Books several months ago about how her childhood prepared her to write this book. It is exquisitely written, impeccable in its prose and authentic to a T.
One of the challenges of being a novelist is crafting for each of your characters a voice that is their own. It is a labor to give each one a uniqueness such that the author becomes invisible and all you hear is the character – this person who only exists in the fictive world the author has made you believe is real. Ms. Stockett excels at this. The voices of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are distinct and engaging.
This is one of those books that leave you with the impression that you’ve made new friends who matter to you. Turning the last page is not entirely satisfying even though you loved the ending.
You didn’t want their story to end. . .