Write a brief essay about a piece of literature that changed your life.
I like to think I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help before it swept the nation with irrepressible success, but I’m not sure that’s true. I may have merely been the first in my circle to read it, and that made it no less gratifying. The book changed my life, and I was delighted to proclaim myself the resource to share this great piece with my fellow lovers of literature.
I bought The Help days before my husband and I would leave for Mexico, a second honeymoon on our tenth anniversary. Though the book beckoned to me and seemed to follow me around the house, I didn’t start reading until our flight left the ground. Once I started, I didn’t stop, couldn’t stop. In fact, I read so incessantly that Robb began to feel as though I’d forgotten that he had in fact joined me on the honeymoon vacation. The book was an object of contempt for a pretty significant, midweek fight over who would win my attention: my husband or the book. Still, I couldn’t put it down.
There is actually a picture of me reading the book in bed, surrounded by satin sheets, fluffy pillows, and a dozen suggestions. I wonder in retrospect if Robb snapped the picture to show me the degree of my utter distraction. (I chose not to post this one. Some things belong only to him, even now.)
I finished with The Help three days to spare. I broke the marital tension by reading aloud the chapter about Hilly’s chocolate pie. This earned me a few points toward restitution.
Stockett writes with such brilliance as she portrays the culture of Mississippi in the 1950s: the privileged, arrogant, ignorant, white women who carelessly employed the tireless, hardworking black women to maintain their homes for little money, less dignity, and no merit. She depicts the chasm in society, the differences between the black women’s homes and their workplaces. I especially fell in love with Skeeter – she stepped right into the corner of my heart that is reserved for smart girls who are willing to challenge the status quo, think differently from their peers, and defend ideas and causes.
But I was most struck by this pervasive question in my mind: would I have been willing to blow the whistle? Would I have been so offended by the audacity of my community that I would be willing to light a fire of change? Would I have been aware of the social dichotomy, even at all? Hilly and her friends simply acted on what they had learned from their teachers, parents, and preachers: the belief that white people are superior. They didn’t have the courage – or intelligence? awareness? – to look objectively and think independently. They were self-absorbed and sinking in their own shame.
I wondered if I would have recognized the social bias. And I wonder even now what social biases I am unaware of, what injustices I should defend, that remain unnoticed and vulnerable while I am unaware, perhaps ignorant, and—God forbid—arrogant. My copy of the book is stained with salt water and marred from sand since I took it with me everywhere on my Mexican vacation. So many men and women served me as I vacationed on their island—I, the “rich” American, who basked in mindless hours, salt on the rim, and everything in excess. I read their nametags and tipped them well, and I lied to myself to say this was enough.