The most significant character is Aibileen, a black house-maid who agrees to help Skeeter first with a domestic advice column in a newspaper and then on a much more risky publication. She begins to meet Skeeter in secret, telling the truth about what it was like to work for middle class white families. She recruits other maids, who because of their faith in Aibileen and their disgust at the treatment of Yule Mae by Hilly Holbrook, risked their livelihoods and their lives to speak openly about the discrimination suffered every day.
The book serves, as all good fiction should, to illuminate truth. Though a novel, the segregation is factual, the way the domestic maids were treated is representative and the oppression of a whole sector of society is honestly depicted. This honesty comes in part from the sections narrated by Skeeter. A reasonable, educated white woman, the book details her gradual awakening to a system in which she had been unintentionally complicit. Born to wealthy white parents who owned a cotton plantation, she had been brought up by Constantine her maid, and was used to having black workers toiling her father's land. Through her story, we see real love and affection between black maids and white children. This storyline is echoed in Aibileen's relationship with Mae Mobley.
The plot is narrated in turn by Skeeter, Aibileen and Aibileen's friend, Minnie. Each has a function. The two maids are foils for one another. Aibileen is steady and measured whilst Minnie is impetuous and impulsive. Minnie has lost countless jobs because she has failed to keep quiet when mistreated by the white ladies. Suspicious of all of them, she took a great deal of persuading to trust Skeeter Phelan and her project.
The novel is the story of the publication of a book, from idea to draft to its reading audience. It tells the stories of maids in the deep South and their employers. It tells the story of a young white woman who wakes up to who she is and how she came to be that person. It is a story of a nation begging for change. Set in the period of civil rights, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, this novel sits at an uncomfortable period of American history whose echoes resonate as sadly all too relevant today.
Despite its difficult content this is a heart-warming story where empathy is given to all three central characters. There is comedy, pathos, compassion and an overarching positive tone that encourages us to believe that humanity, at its best will prevail over the shame and degradation of humanity at its very worst.
This links nicely with my next read, I Am, I Am, I Am. The title comes from a line in Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. The repetitious phrase reflects the sound, beat and insistence of her heart, a rhythm which reinforces her life rather than her desire to escape it. Maggie O'Farrell's memoir however, is not one of suicidal agony, rather it is a celebration of life. This is something of a paradox when you consider that the whole book is about encounters with death! Each chapter details a life-threatening moment in O'Farrell's own life. And it is seventeen chapters long. At the North Cornwall Literary Festival, she said that near-death experiences were not unusual, that we would all have stories to tell. I am not so sure. She has certainly experienced more than most of us. And whilst some can be deemed as "trivial", such as her mother narrowly avoiding shutting a young Maggie's head in the boot of a car or as "commonplace", such as swimming out too far and finding yourself tired and out of your depth (admittedly made more tense by the fact that her young non-swimming son was on her shoulders at the time), others are dramatic and terrifying.
Most of us can be thankful that our vehicles were not targeted by bandits, machetes were not held to our necks or that our rambles in the countryside were not interrupted by psychopaths.
|Think this is already one of my |
most treasured possessions!
The chapter about her own childhood illness is also unspeakably honest. She learns that she is the "little girl dying in there" by listening to an over-loud conversation outside her hospital door. Her subsequent recovery and the ineptitude of the authorities, "where [they]agreed to move my classroom downstairs but not the lunch room...[so] I ate a lot of packed lunches in the downstairs toilets, with the door locked, my feet tucked up so that no one could locate me." makes me cry out for the child she once was.
|Maggie reading at the|
North Cornwall Lit Fest
It is a book of life rather than a book of death. It is about valuing it, holding onto it and squeezing it for all it is worth.
And speaking of which, this is my half-term charity shop haul. I am going to be reading for all I am worth, for as long as I am able...