I was 25 when I married and moved from the plains to Mississippi. It was like diving in the deep end of Southern Culture. I traded wide, far, horizons for close, verdant landscapes; dry heat for humidity; corn for okra. I also fell headlong, into beliefs and traditions that weren’t my own. For example, one of my first neighbors was a kind old lady, who continually delighted and frustrated me. She insisted on calling me Mrs. Golden but demanded I only use her first name. And, even though she knew more about the place where we lived, she deferred to me in every question. Now I had been raised to recognize the authority of older, more-experienced, ladies, especially when using their names, but my neighbor’s education was different. She had been taught skin color establishes who is in charge I was fair while she was dark. Because we’d been taught differently, my neighbor and I spent most of our afternoons trying to outdo each other in courtesy. It’s sad but our mutual efforts to show each other respect became one more wall that kept us apart.
My memories of those sweltering afternoons of frustration all came flooding back when I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Although this story takes place in the 60’s, it reminds me of the place I met 25 years later.
Stockett’s Jackson, Mississippi is like a never-ending high school in some ways. Just like high school, the popular ones measure power by who they exclude. They create rules to undermine and isolate anyone they view as competition. Blacks were cut off from whites; singles from marrieds; boys from girls, and “well-born” people from “trash.” Meandering through this miasma is Skeeter, a girl whose height and ambition exclude her from the group. More than anything, Skeeter wants to be a published author and, since the Civil Rights unrest is in the news, she decides to write about the least powerful groups in Jackson; the black women who work in white households. That decision and the resulting book overturns Jackson, Mississippi and the lives of each soul in The Help.
The Help has received a lot of well-deserved praise for capturing the tenor of that tumultuous period, but it is the humanity of the characters that I like. All of the central characters of The Help are female and ensnared by the rules and expectations of their society. This trap infuriates some and enrages many, but they all suffer pressure. Because of these strictures, the women all become creatures of want, some chasing the love, and power they think will make them happy or fighting to survive. Still, The Help isn’t just about what happens to people in an awful situation. It’s about how they survive even in the worst of times.
Of course, Southern culture has changed a great deal since the 1960’s. It’s changed since I moved here. But a few old discredited beliefs still hang on in some corners, breaking hearts and causing terrible damage. Until these die out completely, the South’s tragic history will remain the elephant in the room, trapping well-meaning people in the corners and blocking them from any way to move forward.
If you went to camp as a kid, did you wonder what the counselors did in the evenings? Speaking for myself, that’s when I learned to play Name it and Claim It. Are you familiar with the game? One person sings a few lines from a song, and if you can either join in singing or identify who made the song famous, you win. Sort of. See, knowing the song was usually a sign of how old you were and, although most of the staff were all still in college, advanced age wasn’t an honor we were all that anxious to grab. I haven’t played the game in years. Yet, Name It and Claim It was the first thing that came to mind as I read Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters: A Novel. In so many ways, it’s a Gen-Xer’s version of We Didn’t Start the Fire.
In a way, this is entirely appropriate, since Judy Blume was the writer for many Gen-X women at an early point in their lives. Her Middle Grade and Young Adult stories steered many of them through the horrible, hormonal adolescent years until they grounded safely into adulthood. That’s no small task, and many grown women remember Blume because of the help she gave them as girls. And memory is the central theme of Summer Sisters.
These are Victoria “Vix” Leonard’s memories of her friendship with Caitlin Somers. At first meeting, these two girls should have little in common. Victoria, growing up in a working-class family, is familiar with siblings and debt. Caitlin, the only child of affluent, divorced parents, knows the joys and sorrows of travel and non-stop relocation. What they share is a sense of loneliness that is relieved when they become friends. The effects of that relationship change the trajectory of both their lives.
Blume tracks the changes of her characters’ young lives through the popular songs and news stories they follow, a move that first endears and then dates her story. When Vix says in the first chapter that she dreams of being the bewitching “Dancing Queen” when she sings along with the record, it tells us a lot, both about the story’s setting and what occupies this child’s imagination. Unfortunately, nearly every chapter follows with some pop culture marker until the reference feels obligatory. By the time Vix mentions the padded shoulders in her first business suit, I wanted to shout, “Yes, I get it! We’re in the 80’s!”
Blume does a better job of capturing Martha’s Vinyard, that off-beat, island of eccentrics, hard-working islanders, summer tourists, and money. A Summer day at the Vinyard is something to be experienced, with its ambiance of light, color, and joy and you get the suggestion of that in this fire-fly narrative, as well as how much harder life is for year-round residents. But, what she does nail is the intensity and durability of certain adolescent friendships. Adult friends like the people we became; first friends loved the people we were becoming. That makes them worth remembering and writing about, for the rest of our lives.