I read a lot of books. I can’t remember when I have been more satisfied after finishing–or more excited to recommend–a book than I was with The Help by Kathryn Stockett. My wife’s reading club selected The Help and Lindi thought I would like it. Like it? Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I started it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it Monday morning. This novel jumped very high on my “I wish I could have written it” list. I began writing this review almost immediately after finishing it. And then I stopped. As I thought more about The Help a few disquieting thoughts slipped in.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s, The Help is the story of people living in a city (and a nation) undergoing radical transformation. It is told from the perspective of three women–Aibileen and Minny are black; Skeeter is white –that each in their own way feels smothered by the laws (official and otherwise) that define their lives. The choices they make put themselves, their families, and friends at risk in dangerous times and in a dangerous place.
Most powerful for me was how the author reveals how much we don’t know about each other because most of our relationships with each other are so shallow. In addition to my “I wish I could have written it” list, The Help will now be featured on the resource list I hand out at future appearances I make to discuss the impact that historic traumas such as slavery and racism continue to have on all of us today.
One reason I recommend The Help is that it tackles very challenging subjects with sincerity and an eye toward justice and truth. Another reason I recommend it is because of those disquieting thoughts I mentioned earlier.
The Help is written by a white woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. The author explains that one of the most significant influences in her life was a black woman named Demetrie who was her family’s maid. Kathryn Stockett knows of what she writes. She lived it. Let me revise that statement: she knows of what she writes from the perspective of a white woman. And here’s one of the challenging parts of The Help for me. Skeeter takes risks in order to try to make the world a better place but she puts Minny and Aibileen at much deeper risk. And, yes, they chose to help her. Yet Skeeter’s privilege as a white woman is on full display. For all her good intentions, Skeeter uses Minny and Aibileen in almost unconscionable ways with the hope of making a positive difference in the world that will ultimately make their lives, or at least the lives of their children, better. In the end, as has so often been the case throughout American history, the white woman can escape to safety. The options for the black women are significantly more restricted and dangerous.
Several of my friends of color have expressed to me that it is often easier dealing with a white person who is openly racist than it is with the well-meaning progressives who are blind to their own privilege, wrapped up in their good intentions, and oblivious to the harm they continue to inflict. This is the most troubling aspect of The Help and why I’ve continued thinking about it.
So I sat with my thoughts about The Help. In the meantime, I picked up The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown and whipped through it in just a few days as well. It’s everything I anticipated, and enjoy, from Dan Brown: fast-paced, complex, thought-provoking. It also contains more violence and people making evil, harmful choices than I would prefer, but that’s the price you pay to experience Dan Brown’s stories.
My interest in The Lost Symbol was also high due to the prominent role Noetic Sciences plays in the story. Having been a speaker (along with my dear friend Belvie Rooks) at The Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) 13th International Conference in Tucson this summer, I’ve been reading quite a lot about Noetic Sciences recently (for a quick definition of “Noetic” click here).
It was when I finished The Lost Symbol that my conflicted feelings about both books became more clear. Kathryn Stockett and Dan Brown have a lot in common beyond the fact that they are best-selling story-tellers. They both write about people who are committed to making the world a better place confronting significant obstacles to their intentions. The heroes in their books believe in truth and justice and peace, and holding accountable those whose actions conflict with these ideals. They don’t always make the best choices but they do their best and they stick with it.
And this is another strong reason I recommend The Help–as well as The Lost Symbol–without reservation. I hope people are troubled by The Help. I hope it makes folks think more deeply about the motivations and consequences for these characters; about the implications for our lives today. As people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds attempt to Come to the Table together these are among the thorny issues we will confront with each other. As we commit to being in relationship with each other we will make mistakes along the way. And we must keep trying.
And we must keep reading, thinking, and learning–mostly about ourselves and how we walk in the world in relationship with our fellow travelers in life. Kathryn Stockett reminds us how treacherous relationships and good intentions can sometimes be. Dan Brown reminds us of the importance of books–how what has been passed down in writing throughout history matters very much–as well as the impact that our thoughts (and how we use them) have on our lives and those around us.
I simply can’t recommend The Help and The Lost Symbol highly enough. My life has been enriched by reading both of these fine books.