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Monday, May 24, 2010

RevGalBookPals: Summer Book Reviews, Part One

For the summer months, we'll be offering book reviews rather than book discussions, and I'm beginning today with two books I read in recent months that make good companion pieces.

After seeing it on the list of our church book group, I picked up one of their extra copies of The Help, a powerful novel about life in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. The author, Kathryn Stockett, who is white, writes from the perspective of three characters: two women of color working as domestic help and the younger white woman who decides to write a book about their lives working in the homes of white "ladies." I'm a little older than the author, and just about exactly the same age as the little girl cared for by Aibileen, one of the African-American characters. When I was that age, I received the daily care of Catherine Doyle, who did the sort of work Aibileen and Minny do in the book, but I hope in a very different environment at my house, in my hometown, Portsmouth, Virginia. Still, although my parents and Ruby's may have been nicer or more just than other possible employers, the world was still screwed up and our hometown of Portsmouth, Virginia, existed under social rules not unlike those in Apartheid.

My friend, Ruby, and I have discussed the complexity of telling other people's stories, when we are very privileged, educated white women who loved the black women who cared for us, but also know we don't fully understand their stories. Perhaps as an activist (Ruby) and a pastor, we hesitate. But Stockett is a novelist, and a lot of this book is about the catharsis of writing, something she required when she began the book in the aftermath of disaster, living in New York City and homesick for her people in Mississippi and for the way life had been before 9/11. Skeeter, the white heroine, writes to get a life and to escape her life. Aibileen writes her prayers every night, a way of keeping up her skills of reading and writing but a powerful spiritual tool as well. She spends an hour or two every evening, after a long, hard day, writing down her prayers.

I wonder what my life would be like if I unplugged from the Internet and spent my time that way?

It's an engaging book despite the difficulties inherent in the task the author set for herself. But I'm a white girl, just like Miss Skeeter, and Miss Kathryn. I hope I'll get to hear/read more diverse opinions from other readers in the comments below.

After I reviewed "The Help" on my blog, I got a very nice email from the Bernice L. McFadden, author of Sugar, asking if I would accept a copy of the book and share my thoughts about it with my blog friends. I agreed, so this is a review of a book given to me by the author. (I also bought it on my Kindle, because authors should sell books!) Ms. McFadden hopes to put before a wider audience an alternative view of African-American life in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, a view formed by an African-American person.

"Sugar" explores the lives of two women in Bigelow, Arkansas, Pearl, who has lived a conventional life marked by the tragic loss of her daughter, and Sugar, who was dropped off by her mother as an infant to be raised by three sisters who run a brothel. When Sugar moves in next door to Pearl and her husband, and the whole town is talking about "who is this slutty woman," Pearl finds her captivating and reaches out to her, tentatively.

I don't want to tell you more of the plot, except to say it's engaging and sad and even funny at times. McFadden explores themes such as abandonment and love and abuse and sexuality and faith and redemption. But she does more than that. She gives the 21st century reader (in my case a white, middle-aged, formerly Southern, educated woman) an eye into the lives of African-American people in the mid-20th century. The characters are fully realized and I venture to say authentic, though I make that judgment as a reader and as a writer myself, not as a witness.

Now, let me tell you how much the book gripped me. I have a Rule of Three, and I apply it to movies and cable TV shows and books, too. The Three are Sex, Violence and Language, and the Rule is I can handle two but not three at the same time. I choose my entertainment based on avoiding the Three at once. Oh, sure, occasionally I go to a movie that is more violent than I expected, but I look away!!! You can't look away from a book, so I simply don't read violent books. "Sugar" contains all three of the Three, right from the beginning, but the writing held me. I wanted to keep going (although I'll admit to putting it down and coming back a few days later), and by the second half of the book, I couldn't put it down. I cared enough about Pearl and Sugar that I wanted to go with them to the end of the story.

I highly recommend "Sugar."

Please use the comments to share your thoughts. And if you would like to post a book review this summer, the dates are the fourth Monday of each month; you may email me directly to participate. If we have more participants than dates, we'll include more than one review each time!

(The links in this post take you direct to Amazon. Books purchased after clicking the links will benefit RevGalBlogPals through the Amazon Associates program.)


  1. Oh, thanks for these reviews! I will look into getting both of these to read this summer.

    I grew up around the corner from you, SB, in Virginia Beach. Although I grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, the racial struggles had not stopped, just gone underground. I find myself drawn to and haunted by these kinds of stories.

    Thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I need to go back and find your review of Help. I read it a couple of weeks ago, and I also really wondered about a white woman writing this. But it also moved me deeply--because that is where I come from in some ways. I grew up in the South Stockett is writing about. We had "help" although not the full-time sort featured here. My mother, though not the Junior League sort, certainly knew people like some of these characters. It was painful reading parts of this book. I have lots of thoughts about this book--maybe I'll blog about it myself.

  3. thanks, Songbird...I was looking for worthwhile summer/retirement reading!

  4. I loved The Help. It opened the door for me to have conversations with my mother about the Tallahassee of her childhood, which (as we learned from subsequent research) was THE last city in Florida to integrate.

    The Skeeter character reminded me of my mom in her questioning of everything.

    I have reserved Sugar at the library!


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