Genre: Historical Fiction, US Civil Rights Movement, Mississippi, Racial Discrimination
Reading Challenges: 17 for 100+ in 2009
Kathryn Stockett's first novel paints a vivid portrait of a way of life which, thankfully, no longer exists, but did once, and not so very long ago. The novel begins in 1962, and is set in Jackson, Mississippi. The experiences of three very different women are the focus of the novel. Aibileen and Minny are black maids, while Skeeter (her proper name is Eugenia) is the awkward daughter of an old southern family, and has herself never really known a world without "the help." Skeeter is returning home from college, burning with the desire to become a writer, but with no credentials that would help her to reach her ambitions. The not-so-gentle guidance of Skeeter's would be mentor leads her to write about something that "disturbs her, particularly if it bothers no one else." Almost through happenstance, Skeeter finds herself deciding to write about the experiences of the black maids that are so integral a part of Jackson life that no one really notices their existence. At least, no one notices until one of them takes a single step outside of the rigid social rules that govern the interaction between the white mistresses and their "help."
I was so drawn in by this novel, that once I started reading I literally couldn't stop. I devoured this book in two days, and was truly sad when I reached the ending. I was humbled to think of how many people had suffered, and how much those individuals had given just to have a few of the basic rights that I take for granted each day. I thought I knew a lot about the history of racial discrimination in this country, but this book really gave me an idea of just how far we have come since the advent of the civil rights movement.
I had chills as I read some of the dialogue between some of the white characters who casually discussed their black maids in some of the most dismissive and disrespectful language you can imagine. The lack of self awareness was particularly startling to me as I read and I realized that many of the women of that time truly believed their own rhetoric with regards to white superiority. The novel also features one of the most hateful characters that I have encountered in quite a while. That being said, Stockett does not demonize the white population in this book. She somehow balances perfectly between portraying what I believe to be an accurate depiction of the injustices suffered with a description of the sincere kindnesses that were shown during such a difficult time. This was an eye opening and thought provoking read, as all the best books are.
This was an excellent book, and I can't recommend it highly enough.