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• Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Kathryn Stockett was born in Jackson, Mississippi USA in 1969. She was raised by an African American maid called Demetrie McLorn and graduated from the University of Alabama after obtaining a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Aged twenty-four and with her diploma in hand she moved to New York where, for nine years, she worked in magazine publishing and marketing. Presently she lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter.

The Help, published in 2009, is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. It took her five years to write and about sixty rejection letters from publishers because of its controversial subject matter. As soon as it was published it became a best seller and was on The New York Times Best Seller List for Fiction for a hundred weeks. It was Amazon’s Best Books of the year 2009 and was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2010. It won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2010 and the exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2009. The Help has been published in thirty five countries, translated into several languages, has sold over five million copies and was released as a film in August 2011.

Kathryn Stockett’s next book will again be located in Mississippi and will also be about women, but this time will be set during the period of the Great Depression.

The story of The Help takes place in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s, a crucial period for American Civil Rights. It’s a few months away from Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech that took place in Washington D.C. in 1963 and a few years after the civil rights and freedom movement of the mid-fifties by Rosa Parks. It’s a couple of years away from the abolition of Jim Crow’s end of the 19th century segregation laws against African Americans by president Lyndon B. Johnson in Congress in1964, making racial discrimination illegal.

In The Help, there are three main characters who take turns in the narration: Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. The novel starts and ends with Aibileen, the oldest and wisest of the three. She is an African American maid in her fifties who, in a maternal loving way, raised seventeen white children in her lifetime along with the cooking and cleaning. Her love and care is often shown in the novel in the way she is raising Mae Mobley, the Leefolt toddler, as a surrogate mother. She is grieving over the loss of her only young son in a work accident, which was blatantly disregarded by his employer and which she was obliged to accept.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is also an African American maid. She is younger than Aibileen, but unlike her, she is derisive, impetuous, indocile and bottles a great deal of anger in herself which makes it hard for her to keep her employments for long. She says to Miss Celia Foote, her present employer and who is labelled by society as “white trash”: “I got knowed for my mouth round town. And I figure that’s what it be, why nobody want to hire me”. Her wrath explodes when she prepares the chocolate custard pie that she bakes and combines with the ingredients her own faeces as a revenge and as a kept promise when she said “eat my shit” to her worst enemy, the loathsome, Miss Hilly Holbrook, who loves the cake and eats two big pieces of it rashly and voraciously, oblivious of what it hides inside. As Minny describes it: “she stuff it in her mouth like she ain’t ever eaten nothing so good…What do you put in here, Minny, that makes it taste so good?”
Minny was delighted to reveal to her what she had added to the ingredients and shocked Miss Hilly and her mother beyond belief.

The twenty-two-year-old Eugenia Phelan or Miss Skeeter is the youngest of the three. She is the daughter of a white family of cotton growers, who, like many southerners, employs black people in their fields and in their household as domestic servants. After graduating, Skeeter returns home to look for a job as a writer. She is emancipated, ambitious and thinks she can change the cruel, unfair, world she grew up in with its racism and injustice, which nobody in her conservative surroundings conveniently seems to notice. She is unruly, defiant and stands firm for her beliefs.

Outraged by the iniquities and unacceptable racism prevailing around her and even among her closest friends, Skeeter secretly decides to encourage the African American maids of her entourage to tell her their stories while in service with white families. To avoid retaliation, she is not going to sign her name as the author of her planned, anti-establishment, daring book and she promises the maids anonymity by using pseudonyms and by calling the city, Niceville. The oppressed, unfairly treated but unyielding maids accept to cooperate with Miss Skeeter.

The risk taken by Skeeter is similar to the one taken by Stockett for her début novel, racial boundaries still being a controversial subject in the south of USA. One simply does not “talk about such uncomfortable things”.

Although Skeeter is very secretive about her planned book, she succeeds in creating enemies around her and among her best friends, especially the self proclaimed leader, Hilly Holbrook, her childhood friend. Hilly is the president of the Junior League in Jackson Mississippi. She is racist, overbearing, arrogant and heartless and couldn’t put up with any person opposing her – people follow her in fear of her acrimony or reprisals.

Skeeter’s maid, Constantine, is presumably included in the novel in loving memory of Demetrie McLorn, the African American maid who worked for the Stockett family for fifty years. The author said in an interview that she started writing her novel in the voices of Demetrie, her black maid who died when Stockett was just sixteen-years-old. She raised her and was closer to her and her siblings than their absentee mother. However, The Help was not dedicated to Demetrie McLorn but to the author’s grandfather Stockett who was “the best story teller of all”, she said.

On the other hand Stockett included Demetrie McLorn in the acknowledgements. The author wrote: “My belated thanks to Demetrie Mclorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us and thank God, forgiving us”. She also included her in her postscript: “Too Little, Too Late, Kathryn Stockett, in her own words”.

When the author was asked about her favourite character in the novel she said : “Aibileen is my favourite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie”.

After failing her first writing attempt and after going through the terrible 9/11 event while living in New York city, Stockett felt homesick and said she wanted “to hear or revisit, those voices from her past”. That is when she decided to write The Help, a novel about her home town with the heavy, outdated dialect which made the story three dimensional for the readers and despite being an easy to read novel, it needed some getting used to for non natives.

The author reveals the gangrene that rots American society, like racism, class prejudices and the survival of the fittest and powerful. The novel is sometimes jocose despite its sadness, in order to ease the overwhelming intensity, but unfortunately it is often repulsively inhuman, poignant and moving. Albeit the tentative optimistic ending of a new era shining on the horizon, there is the success of Miss Skeeter’s book and her moving on to fulfil her dream by accepting a job offer at Harper’s magazine in New York, as a copy editor’s assistant.

There is also Minny, who at last wants to assert her independence by leading a new life away from her brutal and abusive husband.

The same optimism is displayed with Aibileen walking back home in the bright sunshine. She has just been fired by the weak charactered, Miss Elisabeth Leefolt, who receives the order from Miss Hilly Holbrook and carries it out without hesitation, despite the fact that Aibileen has been a good valuable, honest worker to the Leefolt family. The tenacious, Aibileen still holds some hope for the future, thinking that she is not too old after all to start another job as a writer.

All very optimistic and auspicious, but sadly there is still a long way to go in order to abolish the racism and hatred nourished by segregation that still prevails today in many communities of the world.

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Author:
• Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Lloyd Jones was born in Lower Hutt in the Wellington region of New Zealand in 1955. He studied at Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University in Wellington. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University and has worked as a journalist and a consultant as well as a writer.

In 1989 he received the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, one of New Zealand’s long-standing and prestigious literary awards.

Lloyd Jones has written several novels, short stories, children’s books and non fiction. Mister Pip, which is part of post-colonial literature, was published in 2006. It is Lloyd Jones’ best-selling novel and the one that made him internationally known. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Overall Winner, Best Book and was short-listed in 2007 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. It also won the Kiriyama Prize and the Montana Medal for fiction the same year. It has been adapted into a feature film which will be released later in 2012. Lloyd Jones now lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The story of Mister Pip has an historical background as it relates the 1990’s Bougainville blockade by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville being rich in copper. This was an event which led to a civil war covered by Lloyd Jones who was then a journalist.

The novel starts in the early 1990’s. The narrator is the thirteen-year-old black girl, Matilda Laimo, the main character in the novel, who lives with her devout mother Dolores in a shack in Bougainville, a small tropical island in the South Pacific and a province of Papua New Guinea. The island is torn by civil war between the befuddled rebel forces called the Rambos and the atrociously inhuman government soldiers, called the Redskins. Matilda’s father, who was out of a job due to the closing down of the copper mines, left the island a few years before the blockade like several natives. He was hired to work for a mining company in Townsville, Australia and his wife Dolores and daughter Matilda were hoping to join him later but were held back by the imposed blockade.

Matilda is a child lacking paternal presence and support in her teenage life. She has a difficult relationship with her mother whom she loves and feels loyal to despite being ashamed of her reasoning, behaviour and difficulty understanding simple things.

In order to escape the atrocious reality and the horror of war surrounding them, Matilda and the other children allow themselves to be transported by the novel, Great Expectations, into an imaginary Dickensian world of 19th century Victorian England. Thanks to Mr Watts’ astuteness in transmitting his great admiration for Charles Dickens to his pupils, he takes pleasure in reading them a chapter from this well known novel every day.

Matilda says: “He kept reading and we kept listening” and when “the flow of words had ended, slowly we stirred back into our bodies and our lives”. Mr Watts sums it all up in these few words: “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames. For me, Matilda, Great Expectations is such a book”.

The children were mostly fascinated by the main character, the orphan teenager, Pip, whom they could relate to. Matilda was especially under Pip’s spell. She was writing his name in the sand and with shells on the beach. Little did she know at the time that her deed would provoke the savage butchering of Mr Watts, followed by her mother’s by the Redskins who thought that Pip was one of the rebels concealed by the natives. A gruesome tragedy to intensify the abhorrent deeds carried out during these civil wars. As Lloyd Jones says about the Bougainville blockade: “the most unspeakable things happened without once raising the ire of the outside world”. Starting from 1989 and for ten years, the island was completely cut off from the world.

The skinny, solitary, Mr Watts or Pop-Eye, as everybody calls him in the village because of his protruding eyes, “eyes that wanted to leave his face”, is the baffling, self proclaimed teacher. After all the teachers leave the island, he is the only white person who remains despite the civil war, because of his native black wife, Grace, whom he met in New Zealand while she was studying dentistry and followed her home. They both live in the old mission house. Mr Watts is from New Zealand and is a bizarre, elusive, mysterious person. Matilda says: “Mr Dickens was easier to understand than Mr Watts” who “was whatever he needed to be”, a teacher, a magician, a clown with a red nose and ends-up being a saviour for the community when the Redskins needed a scapegoat to slaughter and set as an example.

Later in the novel, Matilda reads Great Expectations and discovers that Mr Watts had read his own version of the novel, rather than reading the original text to the children. “His Pacific version of Great Expectations” as she calls it, or “Pip in the Pacific” as he had named it a few years earlier, proving his gift as a story teller. He shows this talent when he gathers the whole community to recount his own story and keep them all mesmerized by his recounting: “On hearing Mr Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. And the old women too and with the respect they once reserved for prayer… And the Rambos were as enthralled as the rest of us”.

The author treats several powerful themes in his novel and enhances his story with his description of the natives’ naive characters, their desperation mixed with a feeling of helplessness, their uncomplicated basic existence, living of picked fruit and fishing, their gullibility, their pidgin Bible, their superstitions and their simplistic life and beliefs and their power of endurance. Nature is portrayed in a bright, colourful, enchanting way which contrasts with the sombre subject of loss and atrocious bloodshed. The once peaceful, beautiful, tropical island becomes a nightmare place.

A fascinating, original, thought provoking, poignant and captivating novel inside another novel, demonstrating the power of imagination and the effect of literature on people’s lives and how it can be an essential tool providing escapism and survival, whereby fiction and reality intertwine.

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