Sorry, you alien-mystery lovers. I’m not with you. Instead, I find myself drawn to writers whose imagination transcends their own boundaries of race, class, and culture. They have the power to evoke lives quite unlike their own.
I’ve read other works by Linda Hogan, but People of the Whale has made the most indelible impression. Though Native American from the North American heartland, Hogan here describes people of the sea. Once whale hunters, always sparingly, but now almost not at all because there is an international moritorium on whale killing (which Norwegians ignore). The book focuses on a woman who lives on a boat and fishes for her living. She has lost her husband to the war in Vietnam, yet as the story unfolds, he will return, first in vividly evoked scenes from the Vietnam jungle, then to his original people (presumably on the coast of Washington). He is a broken soul, yet when a conniving tribal member rouses the people to a whale hunt (he intends to steal the flesh and sell it to the Japanese–don’t get me started on the depredations of sushi on global fish populations), this Vietnam vet once again takes his place in the hunt. .
In the hunt, the husband–once the designated heir of the people’s highest aims and beliefs–is injured, and his son with the main characters is killed. This is a terrible loss to the mother, and suggests how damaging to the people themselves this hunt will become.Slowly the narrative shifts to modern-day Vietnam, and the daughter of the Native American soldier with a Vietnamese woman who befriended him. This lovely, vital child–who figures out how to survive in Ho Chi Minh City by sweeping sidewalks in front of shops–is eventually taken into a florist’s family. She becomes an arranger of beautiful flowers and an accomplished translator. This long section is perhaps the most sustained and powerful narrative of the book. Yet it is outside the author’s immediate cultural experience. Hogan may well have traveled to Vietnam, but it is only through imagination that she could have created this vibrant, stunning young woman who breathes life onto the page.
Segue to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Since I grew up in South Carolina, I’ve been long aware of the divide between black maids and their white mistresses. My mother, the North Dakota prairie
invidiaulist, wouldn’t have tolerated a maid–she had to do it all herself. Not to mention that my college-teacher father couldn’t have afforded one anyway. But I met black maids in the lovely homes of well-off Southern friends– kindly black women in their kitchens, soft-spoken, who served us girls as if we were royalty.
Later as I grew up to ride the city buses, my fear of offense fought with my intense discomfort as maids, tired and hot after long hours at work, were forced to pass empty seats in the front and find accommodation in the back. Kathryn Stockett captures this conflict. In fact, one of her main characters is a privileged, well-educated white “girl,” who decides to write the histories of “the help” in Jackson, Mississippi. I like the voice and difficulties of this white character, but it’s the group of black maids who truly carry the story.
Their personalities–from rough and feisty to gentle and well-spoken, from beaten by a black husband to solitary and prayerful–become the high point of the story. They are so fully real, so filled with the duty to submit to segregation in order to keep their jobs, and subversive as they undermine racism, while raising white children. These interactions are the most tender and laced with irony–white children being loved by black maids who often instruct them as they tend to their needs. Stockett shows us over and over how racism and segregation undo themselves in the persons of these black women.
The book the maids write with the college “girl” becomes an outstanding success, but of course it is fully dangerous if the white women in Jackson figure out they are being portrayed. There are as many loving portrayals as there are searing portraits, yet it’s terribly dangerous, in this lawless place. Ultimately it’s a seed planted by the maids that ultimately protects them. I won’t give any more away. Suffice it to say, it involves the most virulent (and ridiculous) white female racist of them all–Hilly Holbrook.
When The Help first came out, I read it. But it’s now as I listen to it on disk–with the maids’ sections read by wonderful African-American voices–that the book gains my intense and lasting admiration. Yes, the author herself grew up in Jackson. We have to suspect she used much of her own experience from the 1960s. But it’s her power to imagine the inner lives of the black maids that rings the most true. And Kathryn Stockett, according to her author photos, is white as they come.