Johnny's Reviews > Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic's Life

Like One of the Family by Alice Childress
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Oct 17, 11

bookshelves: african-american-protagonist, female-protagonist, new-york, fiction, historical
Read from October 09 to 17, 2011

I picked this up after reading a series of articles on The Help in Entertainment Weekly. The articles focused on some of the more socially problematic elements of the book (and film), essentially because it is another story where a white savior provides freedom for a collection of oppressed black folk (a la Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird). Entertainment Weekly suggested Childress's novel as an authentic voice written by an African American woman within the time period in which it is set. On those fronts, it soars. Through more than sixty monologues, Childress creates a smart and sassy character in Mildred, an unwed African American woman in New York who works as a domestic for the city's upper class white families. While the Mildred's homeland in the South battles desegregation, she combats a much more insidious form of racism, like the employer who carries her pocketbook around with her whenever Mildred cleans her home which prompts Mildred to claim, "'I understand. 'Cause if I paid anybody as little as you pay me, I'd hold my pocketbook too.'"

The comedic responses like this are often coupled with some down-home learnin' doled out by good ole' Mildred herself, and the elitist whites all too often come down off their pedestals to see eye to eye with the narrator, like when one woman asks Mildred for her health card and Mildred turns right around to ask for health cards of the woman, her husband, and her children. Yet in moments like this the story devolves a bit into the realm of unbelievable. I found myself wondering how often Mildred loses a job because of her sass (a plot line explored thoroughly in The Help actually), and how often their political and social views are changed by her self-assurance. Due to the dramatic monologue structure, some of these character and plot elements are never fully realized, and much of those pieces are what makes The Help so engaging as an overall narrative.

This is unfortunately where the book falls short though. In focusing solely on Mildred's voice as she sits and chats with her neighbor and friend Marge every night, there is really no thorough narrative; this is really just a lengthy character sketch. The introduction to the novel suggests that the chapters were originally serialized in various periodicals, and in isolation I'm sure they come across far less preachy than they do in totality. The true merit here is in Childress disproving the myth of the passive and accommodating black woman of the 1950s: when Mildred tells Marge, "I don't want anybody toleratin' me because the word tolerate is tied up with so many unpleasant things," for example, she channels a twenty-first racial sensibility five decades early. This makes the book readable, but the lack of a through plot here left me wanting more.
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