Monday, May 18, 2009

First Novels

According the conventional wisdom, everyone has at least one novel inside waiting to come out. Whether everyone has the words, perseverance, or even the desire to get that story on paper is another issue altogether. Quite often, though, I've encountered first novels that are beautiful, powerful works of literature. All of us wonder what Harper Lee might have written if she's ventured beyond To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely we would have snatched up Margaret Mitchell's sequel to Gone with the Wind, had she not had that untimely death.

Even for those who go on to produce many other novels, the first one may be rich, despite inexperience with the form, because writers let it roll around in their heads before they finally get the courage or the motivation to get it down on paper.

Kathyrn Stockett's first novel The Help tells the story of black maids and their white employers during the turbulent 1960's. While her white protagonist Skeeter may be only partly autobiographical, Stockett's leaves little doubt in her epilogue that her own experiences with her own family's maid Demetric compelled her to write the story. She admits uncertainty about her ability to speak authentically from the point of view of her other two narrators, Aibileen and Minny, but she felt the story was important to tell.

She even admits in her last pages that in spite of her editor's fact checker, she included a few details anachronistically. She inserts a reference to Dylan's The Times, They are a'Changin'," despite knowing it wasn't released until a year after the events in the book because it wasn't central to the plot but reinforced a point for her characters.

While I grew up in a Southern family that certainly never had full-time help, my mother occasionally employed an ironing lady. (Having grown up despising ironing in a time when even sheets weren't permaprest, that was one of Mama's rare indulgences. Since she was raising five daughters, the ironing pile was a constant.) The most colorful of these employees I remember was Frankie Lee, who drank huge glass-bottled Pepsis for lunch and watched the soaps as she worked.

Our family's relationship with African-Americans wasn't quite stereotypical in the South either. At one point, to supplement his preacher's income (back in the day when preacher's didn't bring home the big bucks, at least not in untelevised congregations), Dad built spec houses with a partner. One of these houses, a tidy one-story ranch, was built on one of the few vacant lots in an older, established neighborhood. The residents around the building site, many quite content for the lot to stay vacant, began spreading rumors about what just might happen if "the wrong kind of people" bought the house. Getting wind of the rumors, Daddy convinced the woman who ironed for us and a young black college student who attended the Christian Student Center where Daddy served as campus minister to ride over with him to the house and pose as potential home buyers at a time when the neighbors were more likely to be home to see. They all had a big laugh when they got back in the car.

Stockett also describes the quandary of being from Mississippi (and by extension for me, Alabama): It's all right for us to complain about our home state, but we just dare an outsider to do so. And while the social climate still has a long way to go in some areas, the times, they are a changin'.


Bruce Niedt said...

Thanks for visiting my blog, Nancy! I like yours too. I just read an excellent debut novel, Sweetsmoke by David Fuller. It's set in the Civil War South, and the main character is a plantation slave who tries to solve the murder of a close friend. It's an interesting blend of historical fiction and mystery with strong characterizations and sense of place.

Candy said...

I was referred to your blog by my former high school English teacher, now friend, Sandy Young. I had Sandy for Senior English thirty years ago and we have recently struck up a friendship by reconnecting on Facebook. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, and I look forward to future posts. I, too, am an avid reader and have recently embraced the world of ebooks, having received a Kindle 2 for Mother's Day. Thank you so much for enriching my day!

Frank 'n' Sandy said...

You know I'm always looking for books to read, so I'll add this one to my list. Sounds great and gives me ideas for a post for my blog. Can't wait to see you in June, cuz!

Glenda C. Beall said...

I grew up in south Georgia in the sixties and I can appreciate the ironing lady. My mother hated to iron and when we didn't have an ironing lady, I was the ironing lady. I had four older brothers and every Saturday morning, I ironed their jeans.
Life in the south during the sixties makes for good writing material. Sadly, some of it is not considered "politically correct" in today's world, but the truth is still the truth.