Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These Times, They are A-Changin . . . for the Better . . .

             I love when books I am reading magically intersect each other. 

Both The Memory Keeper's Daughter (by Kim Edwards) and The Help (by Kathryn Stockett) deal with separation and inequality in the American '60's. 

"The Memory Keeper" refers to Dr. David Henry, a doctor, who is forced to attend to his pregnant wife's delivery when a snowstorm prohibits his way to the hospital.  His son, Paul, is perfectly healthy, but his daughter, Pheobe, has Down syndrome.  Stunned by this reality, David is forced to recollect his own sister, who died at age 12 from a heart problem, breaking the spirit of their mother.  To save his wife the grief of a retarded child, he asks the attending nurse to take the baby to a nearby home for the mentally disabled. When his wife, Norah, awakens, he tells her that the baby has died. 

The nurse's name is Caroline, and after seeing the facility, decides she cannot leave the newborn there.  She takes the baby home instead.  When she sees the infant's death announcement in the newspaper, she decides to raise Phoebe as her own and moves to Pittsburgh. 

Raising a child with Down syndrome in the 60's is no easy feat.  After rushing a the child to the emergency room when a bee sting proves almost fatal, the attending nurse asks Caroline if she is sure she wants to save her. 

In The Help, close-mindedness is rampant on an even larger scale.  While it is perfectly acceptable for a black woman to be employed in a white person's home, cooking for them and raising their children on a day-to-day basis, it is considered unhealthy for them to use the same toilet as the white family.  They must not use the same silver or glassware.  They are expected to use the back door.

But not everyone is content to let these inequalities go without question.  Eugenia Phelan, commonly known as "Skeeter" for her tall, skinny frame, is home from college without a wedding ring on her hand and a fierce desire to write.  She lands a job answering domestic questions for the local paper.  Being a rich socialite, she has no idea how to address such issues as sink stains and bitter coffee.  She decides to ask someone who would know.  Aibileen is the maid of her best friend, Hilly.  Aibileen grudgingly gives her the answers and when she shares that her son, who has recently died, was interested in writing a book about being black in Jackson, Mississippi, Skeeter decides to take a great risk and run with the idea.  She secretly interviews maids about their lives and what it is like to work for the white ladies of the town.  Some of the stories are decent, but a lot of them are not.  Risking their lives, one by one, the maids offer their stories and Skeeter types them up, hoping to impress a New York editor with her book idea. 

Both of these books caused me to shake my head and feel an aching heart at what so many people have gone through because of being different.  While 2011 is far from a Utopian society, I am very grateful that I can have a house full of mixed-race friends and not think anything about it.  When I was a child, I was uncomfortable being around people with mental disabilities.  Having a family member who is affected, as well as working in the public, has helped me to grow up and out of these prejudices.

In The Memory Keeper's Daughter, I had to wait over 300 pages for Norah to discover that the daughter that she has never stopped grieving for was not dead after all.  It was worth the wait.  The prose are beautiful and the character development over a span of 25 years is wonderful and insightful.

The Help is by far the best book I have read this summer.  When I posted on Facebook how much I loved it, a friend mentioned that when her mother started reading it to her grandmother, the grandmother became angry; citing, "we never treated our help that way!".  Hopefully not.  I know there are a lot of decent people who understand that all are created equal.  Unfortunately, I also see the opposite on a daily basis. 

Pick up either or both of these books.  They are worth your time.  Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"The House Settled in for the Story"

"The minutiae had consumed the whole."
Meredith and Nina are sisters, daughters of Anya, their Russian-born mother who doesn't look them in the eye, hug them or share any part of herself.  Meredith and Nina survive their childhood and Nina becomes an award-winning photojournalist, documenting tragedies all over the world and working on her pet project, photos of amazingly strong women of all nations.  Meredith has stayed close to home, married her childhood sweetheart, and runs the family's apple orchard business.  Their father, Evan, the loving bond that holds them all together is dying.

On his deathbed, Evan makes his daughters promise to take care of their mother and to get to know her.  The only time she has opened up to them is through her fairy tales, of which Meredith refuses to listen, ever since a heartbreaking incident when she was young and tried to act the stories out during a Christmas evening.  Her mother exploded and put an end to all her hard work.  Now a widow, Anya is calling her daughters by different names, pulling down and boiling the wallpaper and cutting her fingers with a knife. 

After a short stint in a retirement home (for which she packed a bag of leather belts and butter), both girls redouble their efforts to find out who Anya really is.  Nina relentlessly hounds her to retell the fairy tale of their youth.  Although Meredith is determined to stay out of it, she is drawn to the magic of her mother's voice and the memories of the only times in her childhood that she had her mother's attention.

"It's a tearjerker, but the journey is as lovely--and haunting--as a snow-filled forest," promises People magazine on the front cover of this amazing book that I bought from my last bookfair and squirreled away for summer vacation.  Boy, they weren't kidding.  Riding around in the backseat of the truck yesterday, I was glad to be in my own ipod/dark sunglasses world as Anya relieved any mother's nightmare (think Sophie's Choice . . . shudder, shudder).  I finished the book tonight, hidden away from the family, and quietly shared my grief with the dark night.  It was a beautiful story and one I can't wait to pass on.  In the past, I would have saved it to give to my Gram.  She loved romance novels.  She lives only in my heart these days, so I think I'll give it to my sis-in-law, Kris.  She loves this stuff too.  Thanks for listening and pick up a copy of Winter Garden.  You won't be sorry.