I recently read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early Sixties focusing on racism and female relationships. The three main characters, all women – two black maids, and one white recently college-educated woman born and bred in the South – are all well-developed and the novel is (to borrow some words from the as yet non-existent Book Reviewers’ Stockpile of Descriptions) powerful, magical, heartbreaking, and my favorite, comically poignant.
As usual, I’ll let other, more capable, reputable, sometimes even paid reviewers tell you more about the book, because like Hannah, they’re so much better at it than I. While I was reading the book, though, I was thinking about what it was like to be a child during the Sixties in the South. My father was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida for almost four years during 1965 through 1968, and while I read this book I was struggling to think of what racial injustices must have been imprinted on my tow-headed four, five, and six-year old brain.
The amazing thing is that I can remember nothing like that. Was I so young and naïve (oblivious) I simply didn’t notice? Or perhaps it was because my more immediate world was silently ruled by a sort of caste-system specific to the military; rank. Half the time we lived in Florida we lived on a military installation surrounded by barbed wire, with entry gates manned by Gun-Totin’ Guards. In this environment the rank your father held determined what neighborhood you lived in, what clubs your family could eat in, what pools you could swim in, and more often than not what children you played with. That’s just the way it is on a military base, even today. Rank and privilege. Racism on base, though? Not so much.
The other thing this book got me thinking about was having a maid. It wasn’t until I was half-way through that I recalled my family actually had a maid for a short time when we lived in Japan. My mother was working outside the house, my dad had moved up in rank, my older brother was working part-time, and my older sister was already married and gone, so they must have needed some help for keeping up the household and ten-year-old me. She was a small, quiet Japanese woman, probably not working for much of a wage, considering our very middle-class state. I don’t think she was with us very long, though, as I don’t even remember her name. (This embarrasses me. I remember as an adult one of my cousins was in the army, and he married a Korean woman, and when I met her for the first time at some family function, I was told her name was Okusan. Now, in Japanese okusan means “wife,” and I know he was using this word in the same way for her, so I riled myself up into a bit of indignation that none of my greater family could bother learning this woman’s real name and just called her what my cousin called her. Now I find myself nearly 40 years later not remembering what our maid was called and I am ashamed. Of course, I never bothered to find out Okusan’s real name, either. Come to think of it I don’t remember what my cousin’s real name is; we always called him Bud… I am a worthless dog.) What I do remember about this maid are little visual snippets of her in her white smock-apron folding the laundry and ironing in front of the air conditioner, wisps of black hair blowing around her smiling face. I also remember I had a foot-deep wading pool that she actually cleaned, just for me! No easy task in hot n’ humid Japan in the summer – before her it looked like a nasty kind of science experiment. But most of all, I remember one time when I set up a step ladder, climbed to the next to top rung (there’s a sternly worded warning on the ladder for any higher up, after all) and jumped out into the air, hands high and reaching for the cross of the T of the clothes line for a big, breathtaking swing. The next thing I remember I’m on the couch inside the house with the sweet-faced maid looking down at me with a very relieved, slightly pale, look on her face. My hands had slipped off the bar at the height of my swing, but my momentum carried my body until I was horizontal with the hard, dusty ground and I crashed down on my head and back. I knocked myself out and she had carried me inside.
This is one of the wonderful things about a good book. Not only can it entertain, it can spark further thought, provoke memories, (good and bad), and just plain make you feel. Read The Help and feel something.