For some strange reason it took me a long time to get into the flow of this novel. I am as yet unable to put my finger on the cause of my subconscious hesitation … True, the story is quite close to home: set in Jackson, Mississippi, it describes the taut relationship between white female employees and their domestic help in the 1950s and 1960s. While I didn’t live in Jackson, and indeed the very idea of me wasn’t conceived yet, my life experiences growing up in South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s are remarkably similar. We had a live in nanny, although even in hindsight she was more like a second mother to me and a friend to my mother than paid help (possibly much to the chagrin of some members of the family). So perhaps it was the confronting topic choice which led to my slow start with this book.
Interestingly though, while Stockett has apparently set out to write a book which deals with the complex relationships between white female employees and black female help, it is only at the novel’s end when she reveals her own personal narrative and the depth of her relationship with her family’s maid that this conviction becomes entirely clear. She writes: “I’m pretty sure I can say that no one in my family ever asked Demetrie what it felt like to be black in Mississippi, working for our white family. It never occurred to us to ask. It was everyday life. It wasn’t something people felt compelled to examine… I have wished, for many years, that I’d been old enough and thoughtful enough to ask Demetrie that question. She died when I was sixteen. I’ve spent years imagining what her answer would be. And that is why I wrote this book.” This is a sentiment that will clearly appeal to many who have experienced similar situations to that which Stockett describes.
It’s a grand mission that Stockett has set herself and I’m not entirely sure that she’s met the mark. While the book is certainly set against the backdrop of racial issues in the American South, it really comes closer to being about the inner strengths of the different female characters that it describes. Each of the women in this text have their own challenges to navigate, journeys through domestic abuse, infertility, peer pressure and complex family relationships. The book explores each of these with relative tenderness and compassion and it is this at is its strength.
The novel’s language is sound and the way that Stockett has structured her tale with alternating voices serves to provide insight into the lives of the varied characters. While this generates significant empathy between readers and the characters it does at time generate some confusion and certainly at the beginning readers have to pay close attention to who is who!
Part of the irritation with this text, I think, is that at times it seems as though Stockett is avoiding dealing with complex and complicated issues, either because they are simply too challenging or because they do not fit with the scope of this text. Without revealing too much of the plot, one example of this, is that readers are not provided much insight into Celia’s psychological state of mind toward the end of the book and the resolution of issues like Skeeter’s relationship with her boyfriend is simply too convenient and smooth. Overall, these are weaknesses worth bearing as the book itself is a pleasant read.
It is unclear whether Stockett intended to confront readers with this text, and I dare say that most people reading this type of book would find little to be confronted by with the tale. However, without doubt the novel’s concern with the value of friendship is admirable and if this is what readers take from this text then that alone justifies the reading journey.
Perhaps one of the most valuable thing that Stockett does do, is her reference to a stellar article called Grady’s Story, written by Howell Raines and published in the New York Times. With enormous skill, Raines explores some of the issues that Stockett is trying to raise in her book. This article is well worth the read – http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/01/magazine/grady-s-gift.html?pagewanted=all