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The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Member Name: pmcds
The Help - Kathryn Stockett
Date: 08/06/12, updated on 09/06/12 (46 review reads)
Advantages: Writing style, characters and depth, stays true to itself
Disadvantages: Nothing, although you need to give it the patience it deserves
I soon realised though that you just have to be in the right mood for such a book. I don't get the chance to sit down and read for hours on end, and so it has taken me a few weeks to read it, but I'm so glad I did. It's powerfully written from three perspectives, and is a brave and bold look at segregation in Mississippi in the 1960s. The book's title is the term used for the black maids working for white families, specifically here in Jackson, Mississippi. It focuses on three women, two black and one white, who embark on a mission to expose the horrors and occasional niceties of segregation and how black people were treated at the time. Although largely a work of fiction, it is spurred by the memory the author has of her maid when she was a little girl, so there is certainly some personal feeling in the book.
The book is told from a first person narrative perspective, but split between the three main characters. Aibileen, an ageing help, is perhaps the main character in many ways. She is the first perspective we experience, and straight away Stockett demonstrates the social difference in class between the white housemothers and the help they employ - the word 'slave' certainly wouldn't be misplaced in terms of how some of the women treat their help, and this exposure so early on sets a benchmark for the rest of the book. Aibileen is a calm and respected woman within her community and you get the feeling that she is considered to be one of the best helps among the white women as well.
We then switch to Minny, a friend of Aibileen's who is a lot more volatile and quick with her tongue. This has meant she has lost more jobs than she has children, and she seems to churn these out at quite a rate as during pregnancy is the only time her abusive husband Leroy does not hit her. Hers seems to be a more carefree attitude, but the abuse she suffers at home and the false accusations of theft from her employer at the beginning of the book is a reminder of how doing what they want and seeking to have a nice life is punished almost instantly from every angle. I've yet to watch the film, but I can see how Minny's character would be the most entertaining to watch from a film goer's point of view, even if her treatment is certainly not likely to be entertaining.
The third perspective, that of social outcast Skeeter Phelan, is perhaps the most integral to the book. She is an aspiring writer and seeks to gain a foot in the door by writing for the local paper. She lands the opportunity to write the weekly Miss Myrna column in the paper, which deals with answering letters about household tips. A privileged white woman still with her parents whose maid has always done everything for them, she doesn't have a clue how to start, and with the recent mysterious departure of her childhood maid, she doesn't feel as if she can ask the new maid for help with the column. However, her best friend Elizabeth Leefolt's maid is one of the best maids around for household work. It's Aibileen.
Thus begins the most tentative of relationships between Skeeter and Aibileen, a white woman asking a black woman for household tips advice that quickly descends into Skeeter wondering why black people ar treated so badly and just take it. There are brief tales of horrors and violence throughout the book, and as Aibileen and Skeeter embark on an anonymous way of exposing the truth about what happens behind closed doors, the various main and sub plots develop solidly all around them, dangers of being found out and of others' lives constantly increasing despite the false nice public personas the white people always show.
Really, I didn't how to approach the subject matter when writing this review. I think it's something we're all aware of that used to happen a lot more widely than it does now, but I think you'd be a fool to think that nowhere has this happen any more. Sure, it's a lot less now, and events in the 60s and 70s have certainly led to the equality we experience so much more nowadays. This is a stark reminder of just how bad it was in such an open manner in the Deep South. The way it's written will make you angry in so many places, and it's a testament to the author that characters such as Hilly Holbrook are such horrible people that you loathe them throughout and hope they get their come uppance.
It's not all doom and gloom, and there are some moments of humour, romance and pure hopes and wishes dialogue that open out the characters and the plot and make the whole thing a lot deeper and less streamlined. Each character becomes quite firmly etched on your mind by the end of the book, and I think that reading it over a longer time period, as I have done, certainly helped with allowing me to process the information and story that Stockett wanted to tell. The writing style changes depending on who is telling the story, with Skeeter's parts written in proper written English, Minny's less so with slight amendments, and Aibileen's even more pronounced with slang, spelling and grammar altered quite severely to reflect how she would speak. This is perhaps the most effective part, as it shows just how thoughtful Stockett has been.
Showing things from both a black and white perspective cements the all round view of the subject matter, although Skeeter's viewpoint is certainly in favour of the help and not from those in her social class. If there could have been any improvements to the book to really nail it down, it would have been to present things from the viewpoint of one of the housewives, who really come across as horrible on the whole. We don't really get to see their perspective from a narrative point of view. However, what Stockett does do is make them all vocal enough that we certainly know how they feel because they're happy to talk down to and about their help in front of them and within earshot. Perhaps a fourth viewpoint would not have worked. Just a thought.
Nothing, though, has diminished my enjoyment of this book. I thought it was excellently written, and proposes a very realistic ending. Quite often, fiction allows you to take the easy road and give a 'happy' ending, one that conforms to what you may expect and delivers a feel good take on things. Without giving things away, Kathryn Stockett stays true to the content of the book and a certain sense of reality with her ending, and I appreciated that the ending reflected the content, pace and delivery of the book. Style and panache delivered throughout. A thoroughly recommended read, but you have to be in the right mood and be determined to see it through to the end.
Summary: Powerful novel featuring black help in white households in 1960s Mississippi