05 July 2012

The closest thing to experiencing another life...

Last month I discussed that readers of fiction have better social skills, because it strengthens "our ability to interpret and respond to those different from us."  These are two books that I appreciate, but situations which I'm grateful I will not experience: the antebellum South, and the segregationist South.

Octavia E. Butler's Kindred has been on my shelf for five or six years. I really loved Parable of the Sower, but until now, I hadn't read Kindred because the premise seemed, well, wacky: Dana, a black woman in 1976 Los Angeles, is ripped back in time to 1815 Maryland, saving the life (repeatedly) of Rufus Weylin, her white, slaveholding ancestor.  Kindred is hard to categorize, sometimes classified as African-American literature or sci fi.  Butler herself calls it "grim fantasy." 

Involuntary time-travel aside, the most terrifying part was the horror of being trapped in a society where you have no personal agency whatsoever.  Dana has no written proof of being a free black woman, so she falls into the default category of "slave." Her power in the past stems from her mysterious arrivals and disappearances, making the Weylin family fear her (although not enough; she is savagely beaten on more than one occasion), her knowledge of 20th century first aid (making the Weylins regard her as a healer), and that periodically, her 20th-century white husband is pulled back in time with her (where he pretends to "own" her, giving her a tiny bit of safety... but not much).  Rufus & Dana both distain and protect one another in an unsavory but mutual need for one another's existence. Kindred scratches the surface of revealing the terrible suffering endured by slaves.  Although it's an obscure book, it's also a vivid, award-winning classic of sci fi literature.

Onward to something a lot less obscure: Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  Now, I try very hard not to watch a movie-based-on-a-book unless I've read the book first.  Sometimes I make an exception, and sometimes I don't learn that it's based on a book until after I've seen the film (The Green Mile was an exception; The Reader and Revolutionary Road were, well, I have a girl-crush on Kate Winslet.  Rules be damned.)

When Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for her role as Minny Jackson, I was really bummin' that I hadn't shelled out for the book before Oscar season.  I kept looking for it "used," no dice.  But last week it was on the shelf at the library, so I scooped it up!  I read the book in just three days.

I LOVED The Help: the different narrative voices and their different perspectives on life, the solidarity among the black community, the nasty, mean white women, and Skeeter, the girl who is gawky, smart, and unpopular - and good, respectful, and brave.

Sadly, I think the black women in this novel have more in common with the black women in Kindred than they ought to, even though the story takes place more than 100 years later - this is the righteous outcry of the Civil Rights Era.  Even in 1962-64 Jackson, Mississippi, many black women are still trapped in servitude. Black men and women are the victims of violence, some of which we know about (Medgar Evers) most of which just went on, and never made "big news."  These women are victims of domestic abuse at home, and of their employers' lies at work, and especially of their employers' contempt.  It is an emotional book, but in the end, I felt a glimmer of hope for the characters whom I came to care about deeply.  They were brave enough to speak up, even anonymously, through Skeeter's book, and it gave them courage to take other steps to free themselves from various kinds of abuse & tyranny.

Some critics have said that The Help oversimplifies, even romanticizes the 1960s, particularly in regards to the way the maids care for and love the white children.  I disagree.  In the afterword, Stockett freely admits that a black woman who was "the help" at her house was someone who she loved & felt loved by, and this woman was a large part of the inspiration behind the novel.  Relationships are complex, and both Kindred and The Help explore this complexity.

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