Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Help

I live in Connecticut now, but I grew up in Houston, Texas. It's not really "The South," but one set of grandparents is from Mississippi, and my other grandparents' hometown in East Texas had a very Southern feel complete with the Black side of town over the tracks (and this was in the 80's).

In fact, I couldn't help but think of my Mammaw's last years as I was reading The Help, which is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, telling the story about the relationships between White Junior Leaguers and the African American women they employ as "the help."

After my grandfather died and as she got older, Mammaw had Mary Lou come in and do some housekeeping, including fixing her one hot meal a day. I know that Mammaw enjoyed the food (she never really enjoyed cooking, and certainly not as she got older and more feeble), but I think that she enjoyed Mary Lou's company as well. I remember meeting Mary Lou several times, and one trip that my cousin Stacie and I made from college stands out in my mind.

I think that Mammaw had her fix a special meal to please the starving college students. I don't remember what we ate, but I remember that she made fried apple pies. If you aren't a Southerner you may not even know what these half-moon dried-filled tarts are, but they are a treat, and Mary Lou's were great.

She always had a smile on her face. I don't know if that was her natural temperament or if she enjoyed knowing that she was taking care of Mammaw. When I asked my aunt Dianne about her she said, "Oh, she was quite a character!" so I think that was just who she was.

Some of the women in The Help treated their help as second class citizens, not allowing them to use the same restroom or dishes as the rest of the family, but some of them had a more simbiotic relationship based on the fact that each could offer something to the relationship (employment in exchange for skilled labor) -- as did Mammaw and Mary Lou -- forging a friendship in spite of cultural walls built up over decades.

On that visit, Mammaw told Stacie and me, "I'm going to ask Mary Lou to join us for dinner." I could tell that it was unexpected to extend this invitation, but also that Mammaw saw it as the right thing to do.

If you want to read my full review of this book which is easily the best one I've read this year (and will likely keep that distinction even as 2009 rolls on), go on over to 5 Minutes for Books.


AudreyO said...

I'm loving reading these reviews of yours and your book recommendations. Life was certainly different 50 or 100 years ago. I've read a few books about slavery over the years and I've visited and read about some of the plantations in the south. It seems near impossible that this all happened right here in the U.S. :(

Lisa writes... said...

Oooooh, I'm intrigued...

planetnomad said...

I never had "help" in the US, but living in Africa I do. And it's strange. As a modern American, I respond differently to the African housecleaners than my Arab friends do. They are more like the white Junior Leaguers in the book (it sounds like; I haven't read the book but would like to). But their culture is much closer to American culture in the 40s or 50s than modern American culture.