BOOK: In this debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, her main character, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, returns to her home in Jackson, Miss., after graduating from college just as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum. Intent on becoming a writer, she embraces the advice to write about something that disturbs her and starts to collect the stories of black women who are entrusted to raise the children of the affluent, but not trusted to polish the family silverware. This narrative setup enables the reader to view events, including the murders of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., through the eyes of African-Americans while enjoying an anthropologist's perspective on the activities of the "cake-eating, Tab-drinking, cigarette-smoking women" who employ them.
WHY READ? Before publication, Publishers Weekly described The Help as "assured and layered, full of heart and history," and prophetically announced that the novel "has bestseller written all over it." Though telling the stories of black Americans may sound sentimental and even a bit condescending, Stockett somehow manages to inject genuine drama and pathos into her account, even displaying an impressive ear for the dialect of the black women who tell their stories. "I told him don't drink coffee or he gone turn colored," a middle-aged women says, recalling one of the 17 white children she raised. "He say he still ain't drunk a cup of coffee and he twenty-one years old." Such vivid characterization transforms a potentially saccharine story into a dramatic narrative teeming with the volatile emotions that civil rights aroused in both blacks and whites.
MAKE IT: In 1962 — the year in which The Help is set — poet and civil rights activist Amiri Baraka wrote an essay challenging the notion that "Negroes" in America had no cultural identity they could call their own. Deeming this "the unkindest cut" of racial oppression, he pointed out some of the "soul food" that graced the table of black Americans, such as collard greens, hush puppies and, of course, sweet potato pie. Both sweet and savory, this classic dessert makes an ideal accompaniment to a discussion of The Help because it provides a bridge between the black women who baked the pie and their white employers who enjoyed the result.
TAKE IT: If you don't want to bake your own, buy a sweet potato pie at your local grocery store. Most bake them fresh, but check the frozen pie section, too.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.