This is a great read about black maids working in the still largely segregated Mississippi in the 1960s during the struggle for Civil Rights. This was given to me as a present when I went to buy a TV, I can’t get that to work but the book was good. I finished this page turner in three days despite having to work and in many ways it reminded me of the great Yankee Girl.
Abilene has spent her life been nanny to 17 white children, she is devoted to each one but ends up moving on as the children become older and indoctrinated by white supremacist beliefs. She tries to encourage them to become more tolerant such as telling them great stories about Martian Luther King who is discriminated against because he is green. She is friends with the bolshy Minny who talks back to her white bosses, she ends up working for Celia the “white trash” who all the so-called cultured ladies look down on, due to no-one wanting to employ her after being falsely accursed of stealing the silver. Both maids become involved with Skeeter, a white college graduate who is trying to find out what happened to her beloved black maid who has mysteriously disappeared.
The story attempts to tell the story of life in the South in the context huge racial unrest, with James Meredith, the first black student fighting to be accepted in the University of Mississippi and the struggle to ensure de facto voting rights. The attitudes and events are obviously shocking to us today. The book has been criticised for the fact that only the black characters use southern dialect, especially as the book is written by a white southerner, however I felt that the use of dialect made the maids come to life and jump off the page moreso than the white characters. The end seemed to lose its drive and did seem slightly implausible but an enjoyable read overall.
I was lent this book by one of my students to whom I am teaching African-American Civil Rights. At first I was a bit unenthusiastic as it is a book aimed at teenagers. but once I finally got round to reading it I was completely sucked in. The advantage of it being a book for young people is that is a really easy read and you can finish it in a day (if you don’t have a job of course).
The story is based on the author´s real experience of moving from Chicago to the South during the 1960s. Her father is a member of the FBI who has been sent to investigate the murder of civil rights workers during the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter campaign (as loosely portrayed in the film Mississippi burning). She experiences firsthand the experience of being in a school that is newly desegregated.
The story is fairly obvious but good; Alice is torn between making friends with Valerie the only black student in her class or trying to fit in with the cheerleaders. She is shocked when she arrives in the South to learn that you don’t talk to black people, or if you do, you address them as ´boy´or ´girl´, she can´t believe that the black maid has to bring her own glass to work, or that black children cannot try on dresses in fitting rooms. She also lives in fear of an attack from the KKK, as well as being ostracized for being a “Yankee nigger lover”.
This book makes you think about how ordinary individuals make history, and how terrifying and isolating it must have been to be the first black student at a white school or to have lived this racist society. Alice´s mother says, “One day you will be glad you lived in this time and place. You are seeing history in the making”, Alice doesn’t want to be making history, she just wants to be ordinary, but she finds it hard to live with the racism of her school peers.
Although this is a slightly simplistic view of history – Northerners and the FBI are good (ignoring of course the dirty tricks campaign of the FBI against the Black Panthers), this is a great read and I think it is an absolute must for young children, it will really make them think about people who are bullied and excluded and inspire them to find the strength to stand up for them.