Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Sixties in the South

The Help takes readers back to the burgeoning civil rights era in Mississippi. It's hard to believe that this is the author's debut novel. It's a wonderful story full of women characters who are drawn so believably that you just cannot accept that they are fictional. Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss to find that her family's maid, Constantine, has disappeared. No one will tell her what happened. Like many well-to-do families in the South, the black maid spent more time raising the children than the parents did, and Skeeter feels a terrible loss in Constantine's absence. She starts to pay more attention to the black maids of her friends and begins seeing the world through their eyes as she tries to find out what happened to Constantine. Gradually she comes to see that the world she inhabits holds some terrible secrets and many injustices. She decides to interview black maids and write a book about their lives. It is a dangerous undertaking in 1962 Mississippi, especially for the black women she talks to, but they bravely decide that their stories need to be told. This is a poignant, fascinating book about this period in history. It does exactly what a great book should do: make you think, see, and feel like someone else entirely outside your own skin.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Debra Dean's debut novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, takes readers back to a dark part of the world's history, World War II. Although many novels have focused on this pivotal moment in history, not so many have been written from the Russian citizens' point of view. Set during the siege of Leningrad, in which the residents were completely cut off from food and medical supplies and military assistance, The Madonnas of Leningrad focuses on the plight of the workers at the Hermitage Museum and their families. The main character, Marina, was a tour guide in the museum, and her memories of the Madonnas and other beautiful works of art that used to hang in the Hermitage and have been sent away for safekeeping help to keep her sane during the months of deprivation, fear, and sorrow. The families have been invited to stay in the basement of the museum for safety from bombing and looting, and Marina spends much of her time trying to look out for bombers, bailing out flooded areas, and other assigned tasks. With the rest of her time, she walks through the many rooms of the museum, remembering what was there and describing it in detail to herself. Her memory saves her. Ironically, in the present time, her memory is deserting her as she succumbs to the symptoms of Alzheimers. The novel moves from past to present effortlessly, as we see the world through Marina's eyes and learn about the power of memory and of a rich inner life, even during times of physical and mental decline.