Novel probes the residues of racism

06/03/2010 12:00 AM |

“Writing, remember, is the only art in which the creator is publicly judged by people who do precisely the same thing, but as a rule, less well.”

Graydon Carter, New York Times Book Review

It is a brave act to write a novel. It may be a foolhardy one for a young white woman to write her first novel. using three narrators, two of them black women working as domestic help in Jacksonville, Mississippi in 1962. In “The Help” Kathryn Stockett, who grew up in Jacksonville, employs a kind of dialect as the voice of the two maids, while the third narrator, a young white woman who wants to be a writer, speaks in standard English.

That’s just one of the things that riled the book bloggers. One woman said she wanted to read the black version of ‘The Help.’ Others questioned whether the author has the “right” to voice the experience of black maids. Authors are allowed to write from the point of view of ancient Greeks, or space aliens, or autistic children, but not of people who are black who work as maids?

The book is about the writing of a book. The white narrator, Skeeter, starts writing down the stories of the city’s maids. She is doing it partly because her family’s maid, Constantine, the woman who raised her and loved her, disappeared when she was away at college and she is trying to find out why. What she discovers is the complicated and difficult relationships that exist between the white women of Jackson and the black women who care for their families in the most important and intimate ways, and yet are not permitted to use the same toilets as their employers.

The murder of Medgar Evers is referred to, and there are peripherally references to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and lunch counter integration, but the important action is not the big political changes that are looming in the future, but the local politics of the Junior League and the power that women wield over each other in social situations. There are things that must not be spoken of, lines that may not be crossed, and yet here are the brave black maids of Jacksonville telling their various stories to a white woman who is writing them all down and sending the edited product to an editor up in New York, at Harper and Row.

Some of the stories are heart-rending, some are hilarious, but they are all illuminating and relevant. “The Help” was rejected by 45 book agents before it was published. It has stirred up some controversy, but that hasn’t prevented sales or general word of mouth, book discussion blogs and most critics from being overwhelmingly positive.

“The Help is about something. That is, something real. Something that matters. Most of all, something that matters to women, who are, as it happens, America’s most dedicated readers,” wrote Jesse Kornbluth in reviewing “The Help” for The Huffington Post.

I read “The Help” on my new iPad and it was a terrific way to read. I know there are those who want all books to stay paper quartos forever, but you know, there were those who wanted everything to stay on scrolls forever (very hard for librarians to organize those deep shelves with all the long sticks and little tags) and probably a few diehards were arguing that you couldn’t really appreciate the quality of a line of prose unless you were experiencing it on a proper clay tablet. (Back in those days, librarians had massive biceps.) Or yes, they can wax rhapsodic about monks treating the unborn veal skin (vellum) with urine and scraping it smooth for a really fine reading experience.

Personally, the iPad delighted me with the ease of purchasing and downloading almost instantaneously, the backlit screen with different fonts and different sizes of font, the connectivity of it all. It is an aesthetically pleasing and extremely cool gadget. I can browse the Web, write e-mail and read just about anything and a lot of what I have already downloaded into my digital library is free. I could even write my column on it. The Luddites can scoff to their heart’s content, but I maintain that they are just jealous.

One reason the iPad is so handy is that people like Doris Kearns Goodwin write such very long books. Our book discussion group selected her ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.’ The hardcover is two-point-four pounds of 944 pages. Goodwin is a wonderful writer, with vivid descriptions and an infectious adoration for Lincoln. President Obama loved the book and it was on the bestseller list for a long time. In our book discussion group, only two people out of 16 had actually read the whole thing from start to finish in the one month we were allotted to read it. The physical size of the book made it hard for some participants to hold it comfortably, or read it in bed. We passed around my handy iPad and agreed that it might solve some of the physical problems of reading such a big book. It won’t read it for you, though. There are some things you just have to do yourself.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist, radio commentator and newspaper columnist.