Archive for the ‘Historical fiction’ Category

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

451 pages

Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.

Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.

Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.

It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).

And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.

All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.

The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.

As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.

What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.

But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.

Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.

In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

by Alan Bradley

Random House, 2009

373 pages

I think it was in one of my college lit classes that I first heard the term “antihero.” Before that point, I had encountered the character type but had never had a name for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, an antihero is essentially a primary or secondary protagonist who is unsympathetic or deeply flawed. And, like other character types (the savior, the fallen woman, etc.), antiheroes come in various shapes and sizes.

In some cases, the antihero isn’t a hero at all (at least, not in the commonly-used sense of the word)–more a villain who justĀ  happens to be the story’s main character. At other times, the antihero is a figure of ambivalence, one who inspires neither repugnance nor admiration.

And then there are the inspiring antiheros–those whose flaws are very deep, but tremendously redeemed. Or those whose disagreeableness only highlights how much they’ve overcome. Flavia de Luce, 11-year-old narrator and main character of Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, is that kind of antihero. And that’s why I decided to write about her and her book.

Flavia, the youngest daughter of a 1950s English country squire, is also a passionate chemist with a particular interest in poisons. When one of her father’s estranged school friends (who, like Flavia’s dad, is into philately) turns up dying in the manor’s cucumber patch, with Flavia the only witness to his final moments, the girl catches the detective bug. And when the police arrest her father for the murder, she finds that her passion and her father’s dovetail to unlock a fascinating and dangerous mystery.

Now, quite apart from the inspiration factor, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been a diehard Anglophile since early childhood, and I’m particularly fascinated by books that, like Sweetness, deal with the vagaries of England’s faded but persistent class system. The family’s centuries-old manor house is virtually a character in the novel, and the complicated relationships between the de Luces and “the village,” along with Bradley’s dash at questions of upward mobility and intra-class hierarchies, would warm any lit professor’s heart.

I also love well-crafted mysteries. As a kid, I read them widely until I settled on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s detectives as my favorites (I know, again with the Brit lit). Sweetness has been likened to Christie, and deservedly so, both in terms of style and background themes. Bradley’s intricate plotting, colorful characters, and esoteric subject give the book just the right combination of craft, quirkiness, and depth.

The mystery is also where much of the inspiration comes in. Flavia is a geek girl’s Miss Marple; like the older sleuth, she’s sly, savvy, and misleadingly unintimidating and innocent–sometimes to the point of being downright manipulative (one of the reasons she qualifies as an antihero). And obstacles and fears that would repulse other people only add fuel to her detective fire.

Unlike Miss Marple, however, Flavia is baldly unconventional. Her craze for chemistry, her contempt for traditionally feminine pursuits like fashion and cookery, and her deliberate flouting of class barriers mark her out from the crowd. Significantly, they also help her solve the mystery. Her boundary-breaking is rewarded, not punished.

Finally, there’s that whole antihero thing. I’ve mentioned that Flavia can be manipulative. She’s also surly, defiant, self-centered, and distinctly unempathic. And she’s often indifferent or even vindictive toward her own family (in the book’s primary subplot, she deliberately contaminates her oldest sister’s lipstick with poison ivy).

Yet, as the book progresses, we see her begin to examine those tendencies, even modulate them somewhat. Without losing her edginess or strength, she becomes a bit more able to think outside herself. She pushes her detective work to the extreme of endangering her own life in order to save her father. And she begins to show genuine attachment to some of the more worthy characters of the book. Book’s end finds her “doing the right thing,” willingly (though I won’t describe what that thing is, since it would be a major spoiler).

Don’t get me wrong–Flavia is still very off-putting in her way. But real people often are. And that’s the point: Flavia feels real, not like a paperboard villain or half-crafted creation. And, like real people often do, she has to push beyond her own failings, possibly even find a way to redeem them, to make her world right again.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of a projected six Flavia de Luce mysteries. The first five have been published; book six is due out January 2014. Thanks to my friend S. for pointing me to Flavia!

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Little House in the Big Woods and others

by Laura Ingalls Wilder; ill. by Helen Sewell (first editions) and Garth Williams

HarperCollins, orig. pub. 1932

I was trying to decide what to post today–something I’ve stockpiled? or a freshly written review? what age group or genre?–when I realized that I would be posting right before my birthday. And that immediately pulled my mind to memories of inspiring books I’ve been given, some for my birthday, some for other occasions (and some just because).

So instead of posting a review today, I decided to write about one of those gifts, the one that is probably most closely connected to my passion for stories, reading, and writing.

When I was about a year old, my mom took me to visit my great-grandmother in Texas. I was already in love with words by that point: I had talked early and was now babbling away in long, complete sentences. Mom says my favorite thing to do was talk. And so talk I did, keeping up a steady stream of questions, stories, and observations as I followed Great-Grandma from room to room in her tiny house.

I don’t remember Great-Grandma at all, but Mom often describes her as a heavy-hearted person. She had lived through two world wars as the sister and mother of soldiers, buried an infant daughter, and been left a widow with three children just as the Depression began. I’ve never seen a photo of her smiling.

My flood of words, however, made her laugh.

And so before we left Texas, she handed my mom a boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. “These are for Kathryn,” she said. “That girl is going to be a reader someday.”

When we got home, Mom set the books aside for a few years. I don’t remember exactly when she brought them out, but I do remember reading them with my dad when I was just six. Every night before bed, my younger sister and I would climb into his lap, and he would read us a chapter. We went through the entire series, and Dad says that I would sometimes read short passages aloud.

Later, I read the books on my own. In fact, by the time I reached junior high, I had read them so many times that I was afraid they would fall apart; I covered them in clear contact paper to hold them together. They had pride of place in my bookcase until just last year, when I took them to my parents’ house so all the grandchildren could enjoy them.

Obviously, I loved those books. I identified with Laura from the start. Like her, I sometimes got into trouble for expressing my mind (there was, for instance, the time I blew a raspberry and gave a thumbs-down to my first-grade teacher because I didn’t want to go to P.E.). I was stubborn and curious like Laura, bookish, and pretty uninterested in domesticity. Young as I was, something resonated in me when she refused to include obedience in her marriage vows. And the fact that these amazing books were written by a woman planted a seed in my mind: maybe I could be a writer, too, one day.

But I didn’t just love the Little House books for what was in them. I also loved them for what they represented in my life.

In handing my mom those books, my great-grandmother performed a very important act of validation. She left me with a constant reminder that she had loved me because, not in spite, of my thirst for stories. That my intelligence had made her proud. It was a good reminder to have, especially on the many days when I felt like a misfit because I liked to learn and read. That thick blue box said to me, “It’s not just OK to be yourself–it’s good.”

So the next time you’re trying to decide what to give a young girl for her birthday or some other occasion (or just because), give her a book. Not just any book–a good one. Because you never know where it will lead her.

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