I tend to read a lot of YA fantasy and not a lot of mainstream books. Although I read a lot of fiction as a child, I found a fiction I read as an adult to be disappointing. As a result, I eschewed a lot of books that have been hawked by Oprah and/or made their way onto the New York Times bestsellers lists. I’d made a couple of attempts to read David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephens, but I simply couldn’t get into their writing style.
Now that I’m digging into writing as a field, I decided that I wanted to try and read more widely. Since I’m writing a memoir, I started with reading a few memoirs. I had bought two books earlier in the year by Larry Brooks, author of many books and owner of Storyfix.com, Story Physics and Story Engineering. I haven’t a degree in creative writing, and, after going back two times, I think I’m pretty much done with that. But I need to learn and I want to learn, so I’m trying to learn from those who have gone before.
After reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (twice), I began to read Story Engineering. One section is dedicated to breaking down The Hunger Games; the other, to brekaing down The Help by Kathryn Stocktett. I decided to read The Help before I got to the section on it so that I could understand better why Brooks says it works. I had picked it up, along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare and Watership Down by Richard Adams. I knew I wanted to read The Help last so I could then pick up Story Engineering and learn from it better.
Yesterday, I started reading The Help. I could not put it down. I mean, I did put it down so I could do things like eat dinner, write in my journal, and get ready for bed. I continued reading in bed until it was done. The pacing was phenomenal and continuous level of tension kept that story moving right along. The racial tensions were nail biting, as you know the consequences of breaking racial barriers and speaking against the bigoted norm, especially in the South, against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Era, the murder of NAACP Secretary Medgar Evars, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, were murderous. Those kinds of racial tensions continue to exist between the police and the African American communities todays, even if the social community has tampered down some of its racism. I will leave it to African Americans to determine how and to what degree it has gotten any better.
I particularly liked how, instead of a third person viewpoint, we it from the first person perspective of three characters: Aibileen and Minny, two of the African American help, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a white writer who wants to write more than she want to appease the bigoted society circles through which she runs. Skeeter’s own nanny, Constantine, disappeared while she was in college, and no one will tell her why she’s gone. Each woman’s chapters have a unique voice. You feel kindly towards Aibileen, the peacemaker, riled up and rooting for Minny, the back-talker, and biting your nails over Skeeter’s to cross over the racial lines, meeting with Aibileen and Minny secretly in Minny’s kitchen. Skeeter risks her own life to meet and gather the maids’ stories, along with the stories of about 10 other maids who have worked for white families all their lives and the struggles that resulted. The root of Skeeter’s desire to write is not simply a desire to write, but a way to heal the hurt that has come with her maid’s disappearance, whom she loved and missed deeply. For me, this is the emotional pin that makes the white woman’s story believable. All the women put their lives at risk to get the stories onto paper, edited, and out the door in time to meet the New York editor’s pre-Christmas holiday deadline and so that maybe it will go into print and change the lives of them and everyone in Jackson, Mississippi.
I loved all these characters, and I highly recommend The Help by Kathryn Stockett to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I may just go reread it again myself.