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Kathryn Stockett's The Help: Building Bridges and Breaking Down Barriers

July 11, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Literary Movies 2011, Literary Traveler Book Reviews, Southern Writers

Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, was recommended to me by a friend.  She described it as a book she just couldn’t put down, a book that allowed to her to immerse herself in a different world. I was eager for a page-turner, but hesitated when I discovered The Help was advertised as a “bestseller,” a label that prompts both curiosity and fear.

As I began, I was immediately struck by the accuracy of my friend’s description. After a single paragraph, I felt as if I were thinking from the perspective of an African-American maid, responsible for “taking care of white babies…along with all the cooking and the cleaning” in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. As I read on, however, I discovered the story is narrated by three different women: two black domestic workers and one white, upper-class daughter of plantation owner. These characters present radically different perspectives, and this is clearly reflected in Stockett’s style and strict attention to character details.

Stockett also employs a controversial method to distinguish her characters: eye dialect, a literary technique in which words are spelled as they are pronounced in a particular vernacular.When the character Aibileen exclaims “Lord!”, for example, the word is written, “Law!”, because that’s how the word sounds when it comes from Aibileen’s mouth.

At first I was a bit startled by this technique, as it is frequently attributed to older works like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and is sometimes discouraged in contemporary literature. Eye dialect has been criticized as a form of racism, depicting minorities as uneducated or “incorrect.” Mark Twain often replaced the word “civilize” with “sivilize.” Critics argue this kind of substitution is unnecessary because it does not further the understanding of the pronunciation of the word, but is used merely to stress an African-American character’s lack of education.

In my opinion, Stockett’s use of eye-dialect is different than prior use, so it doesn’t seem out-dated. Authors like Twain misspelled and made up new words, intending to depict the pronunciation of a dialect. Stockett doesn’t do this; instead, she only substitutes one word (lord) for another, existing word (law), subtly expressing a dialect’s variance in pronunciation. This variation on eye-dialect does not insinuate that the African-American characters are unintelligent or ignorant; rather, it is incredibly effective in developing character voice, and accurately illustrating the time, place and culture each character embodies. The Help is a riveting novel that discusses a truly difficult time in our nation’s history. Stockett’s inspiring characters and unforgettable use of perspective act as a bridge between races and societies rather than a barrier.

Be sure to check out the motion picture interpretation of The Help, which will be coming to theaters August 12, 2011. The film, directed by Tate Taylor, will star Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and, Octavia Spencer.



The Journey Becomes the Vacation

November 24, 2010 in American literature, budget travel, Classic Writers, Economy, Travel, travel deals

Mississippi River

Everyday the price for flying and additional fees slightly increases. Baggage fees, pet fees, and airline meals are greatly overpriced. As a traveler, I would rather spend my money on exploration and spontaneity. So I choose driving across country instead.

As you explore the depths of the road, the act of traveling becomes part of the vacation and not something to simply endure. Traveling by car allows for the journey and the destination to be the vacation.

I drove across country this past summer, and one of the many reasons why I prefer to travel by car compared to by plane is because of the spontaneous stops.

As I traveled the country, I decided to cross into Missouri from Illinois via the Mississippi River. I stood on the Ste. Genevieve ferry and reminisced about the story of Huck Finn and his adventures along the Mississippi River. As I watched the twigs float by and felt the cool breeze wisp across my face, I pictured Huck Finn on his raft drifting across the river beside me.

Take it from a traveler that often takes the wrong turn, spontaneity is freeing.  It presents a new layer of traveling. As I took unintended turns, I instantly rerouted myself along another path towards my destination. Every unintended turn became a spontaneous new adventure and a shift in a new direction.

Mark Twain’s Mississippi River – A Trip on The Delta Queen from St. Paul to St. Louis

November 23, 2010 in Classic Writers, delta queen, Huckleberry Finn, mark twain, tom sawyer

One of the great things that we get to do as part of Literary Traveler is take a neat trip now and then. Not all of the time mind you, but sometimes everything aligns and we get to take a once in a lifetime trip.

It’s even more special when you travel to a place you remember but have never actually been. This happens when you are traveling through a landscape that you have only read about. This was the case for me when I was invited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to help lead a trip on the Historic (A National Historic Landmark) Delta Queen Steamboat.

The trip was to celebrate Mark’s Twain’s Mississippi and was ten days at the beginning of July a few years back. We went from St. Paul to St. Louis and stopped at number of memorable places as we wound down the river.

The trip combined travelers from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Stanford Alumnae and Smithsonian. We had some great people on that trip including the travelers, the presenters and the people behind the scenes who made it all happen.

Sadly the Delta Queen is not currently riding the rivers and is docked in Chattanooga, TN. As part of a series of ongoing videos that we are producing at Literary Traveler, we wanted to share the magic that we felt on the Mississippi.

Reading Mark Twain On A Summer Day

July 2, 2010 in Uncategorized

Image via AmazonToday, in honor the holiday and the long weekend, I’ve decided to forgo Friday links and instead focus on one of my favorite American authors: Mark Twain.

For a lot of people, “summer reading” means one of two things. Either they’re referring to the mandatory “great books” assigned by High school English teachers or they’re talking about the light, “trashy,” less-than-literary novels commonly termed “beach reads.”  But when I hear the term “summer books,” I think about something else entirely.

For me, a summer book is one that I return to over and over, one that breathes heat out of its pages and soothes with its particular brand of fantasy.  These books feel carefree – reading a summer classic is about as satisfying as climbing a tree, or diving into a swimming hole.

My all-time favorite summer book is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, though Huck Finn comes in at a close second.  These novels perfectly capture the mischievousness of childhood, the excitement and the continual yearning for freedom.  They speak to a part of me that still sometimes secretly longs to run away from home and join a circus, or a band of traveling musicians, or just float lazily down a river, ignoring all of my other responsibilities.  With his sharp wit and ability to capture the local color perfectly, Twain transports me back to a different time, one that only appears simpler at first glance.

Another reason I love Twain has less to do with his characters and more to do with the setting.  Twain is an American Author.  He is quite possibly the quintessential American Author.  Not only does he write in that hilarious, rambling, biting-yet-kind voice that feels so American, he also manages to inject each of his novels all the beauty of our country while remaining authentic.  He does not sugar-coat his books; childhood is not a perfect place, free of tension.  Tom and Huck may not be aware of the great injustices of the world at the beginning of their journeys, but as they grow and progress, they come to see our world for what it really is.

This July 4th, do America proud and pick up a book by one of our many great authors.  If Twain isn’t your cup of tea, how about some Faulkner?  Or Melville?  (May I suggest Benito Cereno?)  Or, if you don’t have that much time, check out one of our articles on Mark Twain, which include A Revealing Interview with Terrell Dempsy, Author of Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens’s World, Mark Twain in Unionville, Nevada, and Finding Mark Twain’s Hannibal.   You can also search for other American authors at

Happy reading!

Friday Links: Book News From Around The Internet

April 9, 2010 in Uncategorized

Every Friday, the staff at Literary Traveler gathers up relevant book news from around the web, bringing it together in a handy post for book lovers to peruse.  Enjoy!

  • Mark TwainLet’s start off with the biggest story of the week: the iPad.  Now that it’s here, what can it do for us?  Well, according to the reviewers at Salon, it offers a “serene” reading experience, perfect for getting lost in a text.  And although the iBooks store is rather anemic right now, Amazon is offering an app to download Kindle books to the iPad, which might just be the best of both worlds.
  • And for even more on e-readers, check out the series of essays on the new medium over at Critical Mass.   “I prefer paper for everything,” writes columnist Martha Cornog.
  • Also trendy: Vampires.  It seems that the blood-suckers aren’t going away any time soon, so educate yourself on the “ethical” breed of domesticated monsters with Emily Colette Wilkinson’s fascinating take on our modern vampire romance.  If that whets your appetite for blood, The Guardian has a few great book recommendations for horror fans.
  • Margaret Atwood is on Twitter!  And she is very appreciative of her followers, who have sent her “many interesting items pertaining to artificially-grown pig flesh, unusual slugs, and the like.”  She also includes one of the most flattering descriptions of Twitter we’ve ever read: “It’s something like having fairies at the bottom of your garden.”
  • Preeminent Twain scholar Laura Skandera Trombley appeared yesterday on the Leonard Lopate Show to talk about Mark Twain’s “other woman,” Isabel Lyon. “Twain in effect made her his substitute wife,” she explains.  Trombley also suggests that Lyon always hoped Twain would marry her, but she was happy to work for “the most famous man in the world.”
  • And finally, take a moment to ponder the tragedy of so-called “lost literature.” There are many great pieces that time – and the general reading public – forgot, including the works of Ukrainian writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and Russian author Danill Kharms.   Perhaps it’s time to celebrate some of our favorite, lesser-known authors before it is too late.
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