Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Help

Growing up the South is not for the faint of heart. An enigmatic place at the best of times, it is paradoxical to its core. Finding your way through the varied switchbacks and roundabouts than make up the overgrown maze of its personality can be a bewildering experience, and one that often takes a lifetime, at least. Just when you think you have it solidly in your sights, it slips around a corner leaving only the faint fragrance of a fading magnolia hanging in the muggy air. At the very moment you feel confident with its definition, it can, without warning, fashion itself into a creature of myth, sending you back to huddle over your history books and crystal balls, once again in search of the truth about this place you call home. It is a land where heart-stopping beauty and heart-rending ugliness flourish in tandem - a land of kindness and hate, of ignorance and wit, of integrity, blindness, and pride.

Here in the South we often feel we are the only ones remotely qualified to comment on our strange and haunted part of the planet. Be it on film, stage or between the covers of a book, we can spot a fake Southern accent in an flash, finding it rather more humorous than offensive. For how can those who were not raised with this mystery ever hope to interpret it with an authentic voice? Indeed, those who have gotten it right, who have held the bright prism up high, reflecting the myriad of colours - all the primaries and secondaries, the darks, the lights, the shaded greys - that paint the true picture of the South, well, those few were mostly born here. They know of what they speak. Harper Lee nailed it to the wall with To Kill A Mockingbird, and there have been others. Faulkner, Capote, Welty, O’Connor, Clyde Edgerton, Pat Conroy, all writers who knew their homeland well and managed to share some of her secrets with the outside world.

I have recently finished reading a brand-new book that I am so pleased to add to my shelf of Southern writers. This author has accomplished the task of rolling back the stones and illuminating the hidden South most admirably. The author is Kathryn Stockett, and the book is entitled, The Help. Mississippi born and raised, Ms. Stockett has indeed written what she knows and her truth shines with a glowing light on every page of this marvelous first novel. Literate and heart-felt, it is warm and funny, painful and tragic, a story in which wisdom burns in the midst of ignorance, courage walks hand in hand with fear.
Much like the South itself.

We have come so far here in this part of the country, with miles, no doubt, to go. The shame of our past can never be erased, or even understood, but we cannot move forward if that past goes unacknowledged. The Help reminds us not only of where we have been and how far we have come, but also how very much we all share, how much we are alike. It is an amazing achievement, populated with unforgettable characters, and it was a pure pleasure to read.

Painting above: The Magnolia Flower by Martin Johnson Heade