Since school let out on 2 June, I guess I've read 5 books, the best of which has been The Help by Kathryn Stockett. My mother loaned me her hardback copy and gave it glowing reviews. I've always been drawn to stories about and by African-American women (The Color Purple being my all-time favorite book, one I've read several times), so I knew I would also appreciate Stockett's story about "colored" maids in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The writing is clear and true and the experiences of these women gave me a lot to think about, much to feel. I won't give too much away, but the plot largely revolves around finding a voice through writing, another concept I've always found comforting and emotional and powerful. I've given a lot of thought to the different mothering styles in the book, the ways what your mother tells you when you're little can build you up to be more than you ever thought, provide you a safety and security that comes with being loved and delighted in unconditionally, or how a mother can cut you down and hold you back and leave you feeling discounted, ignored, misunderstood. How black women could mother white children only up until the point their parents' prejudices and hatred became their own. Almost everything about maid Aibileen makes me cry:
"She turn from the birdbath and smile and holler, 'Hi, Aibee. I love you, Aibee," and I feel a tickly feeling, soft like the flap a butterfly wings, watching her play out there. The way I used to feel watching Treelore. And that makes me kind a sad, memoring. After while, Mae Mobley come over and press her cheek up to mine, and she just hold it there, like she know I be hurting. I hold her tight, whisper, 'You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley. You hear me?' And I keep saying it till she repeat it back to me."
There's also an exploration of how friendships evolve over time, how sometimes you realize things about people you've always known that you wish you hadn't, that sometimes you have to cut ties. Alternately, there are friends who guard your secrets, watch out for and over you, friends who will sit at your kitchen table with you late at night and sort out whatever needs sorting with you. I didn't want this one to end... (I'm thinking now about how Aibileen was a reader just like me, how getting books smuggled to her from the "white" library gave her the same joy, the same open mind, the same depth of feeling, which again makes me cry.)
I've otherwise been stuck on a theme in my reading, World War 2, starting back with The Book Thief, then Sarah's Key and The Diplomat's Wife, all centered on the Germans and the Holocaust. Then The Piano Teacher which, like Shanghai Girls, focused on the war in the Pacific. Maybe I'm drawn to these stories because both of my grandfathers fought in the war, one against the Germans, the other in the Pacific. I know just reading historical fiction can't even begin to adequately show me their experiences, but somehow reading about that time period gives me a little glimpse, a little more understanding, I guess. Such a fascinating and horrifying and poignant time in history. Not so long ago really, but also a world away from my own life today.
Today I finished Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue, a book I found at the thrift store a couple of weeks ago. This story follows 3 beautiful sisters and the various soldiers they correspond with during the war. Wouldn't I love to have all the letters to and from my grandfathers? Who wrote to them? I especially noted a passage summing up what one soldier had written to oldest sister Kitty:
"He thought times like this could galvanize people into a certain kind of unity but could also make for unexpected changes in the individual, for strange contradictions. He said he himself had begun to feel the need to be alone most of the time. And yet he also felt a kind of love and compassion for humanity far greater than what he'd ever felt before. He found it hard to blame the war on any one person. He thought that, despite witnessing--and taking part in--such unimaginable violence, most soldiers would come home from the war wanting never to hurt anything again.
"He told her about boys who came back from the battle vacant-eyed, their hands shaking, who in a few hours' time were ready to smile and joke again and then eager to rejoin those at the front. He said that extinguishing life in another seemed to make you unspeakably grateful for your own, indeed for life in general. For a few hours after a battle, Hank said, everything the men looked at seemed caressed by their eyes. They were such young boys. They were such old men."
I'll be thinking of William Archie Curtis and Julian Jasper Cowan when we celebrate the 4th this weekend, as I do on any holiday or moment with a patriotic slant. I'll never really know what those two went through, and I'll never be able to really define how I feel about what they did, the young boys they were, the old men I watched them become. But I'll think of them kindly and generously, as Hank described, as men who saw and felt so much pain that they never wanted to hurt anything again. My whole life they've been so very kind, so very generous, to me.