Week 35–The Help

I’m so behind and I apologize profusely! I was on vacation this past week and didn’t get a chance to do any writing!

Several reasons for choosing to read this book now. I’ve been wanting to. The movie is out. And most importantly, because one of my readers asked me to write a blog after I’d seen the movie. Well, I saw the movie a couple of weekends ago, and now I’ve read the book as well.

In truth, I thought The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book that’s been on the bestseller list for years, was a little over-hyped.  It’s written in three separate voices which come together to tell the story of Miss Skeeter, a southern woman living in Jackson, Mississippi–one of the worst states in the 60s for racism, violence, and enforcement of Jim Crow laws.  Skeeter, an aspiring writer looking for something that will impress a large publishing firm in New York, becomes more and more disillusioned with the way that black maids working in Jackson households are treated. She decides to make this the subject of her book, and conducts a series of interviews with previously-mentioned maids, wanting to give the world perspective on the way hard-working African American women are treated in white households.  The project is dangerous for several reasons, and part of the suspense of the novel is due to their constant need for secrecy and their fear of getting caught. They know that their jobs and perhaps their lives are endangered should they be found out.

The two women that Skeeter finds to help her get started on the book, and who eventually recruit other  maids–Aibileen and Minny–are hilarious but tragic characters. Aibileen is still suffering from grief at the loss of her son.  Minny has a “sass-mouth” that gets her in trouble with her white employers, and a husband who makes a habit of beating her when he’s drunk.  Because Stockett chose to write the novel from their perspectives in addition to Skeeter’s, the reader is allowed insight into what they experience and feel.  Their personalities are tremendously opposite, but they have a beautiful friendship that they use as a haven from the heartbreak, disappointments, and myriad abuses they experience.  One might have doubts about the ability of a white privileged woman from the South (Stockett) to be able to accurately portray the emotions of these women, but in reading the note from the author at the back of the novel, the reader discovers that Stockett was herself raised by a black maid, and feels remorse at her careless regard for the woman who raised her, and whom she loved.

It takes a while to accustom yourself to the internal dialogue of the characters. Each of the three narrators uses language in various states of decay–Skeeter’s voice is one of a well-educated white woman, while Aibileen and Minny speak in a much more vernacular, and very much Southern, style.  The first few chapters had me reading quite slowly, trying to pick up the feel of their various voices. But once you get the hang of it, it enhances the novel to a fantastic degree.

The villains in the novel are also brilliant.  Miss Hilly, the ring-leader of Skeeter’s group of old college friends, has drafted an initiative to require all white homes to have a separate bathroom for their “help.”  She is forceful and unkind, scheming and ruthless.  With the exception of Skeeter, the entire group if white woman acts as one to keep their maids living in fear and submission. Minny at one point details how exactly a white woman is more dangerous that a white man.  White men can kill you, but it’s usually fast. A white woman can make her maid’s life a living hell, prevent her from getting a job, and slowly etch away at the relative security of her family.  Hilly is especially dangerous in this regard, but she is a character the reader loves to hate.  She embodies everything that was wrong with the South (actually, what is still wrong with the South in some places…).

To be honest, I felt the plot dragged a bit.  The movie did a better job of moving the story along, but didn’t keep secrets as well as the novel.  It’s the mystery and suspense about the various characters that held my interest in the novel: What’s wrong with Skeeter’s mother? What is Miss Celia doing in the bathroom? How did Aibileen’s son die?  It’s always engaging when the author holds information from the reader for a while.  It piques my curiosity and keeps me involved.  Stockett manages that very well.  But I could have done with less introspection and more action.

I’d recommend the novel to those who love historical fiction. And even though the hype about the movie has died down a little bit, I would advise reading the book and seeing the film. Both of them are well-done and sweet.  And I didn’t hate the film for deviating from the novel a bit.  Also, the portrayal of the characters and delivery of their witty commentary made me die laughing.  It’s definitely worth the cost of a book and the price of a ticket.


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