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Kathryn Stockett - The Help Legolas Send a noteboard - 25/07/2012 11:23:09 PM
I first heard of The Help when its movie adaptation won an Oscar this year - prior to that, I don't remember having heard a word about either book (released in 2009) or movie. Rather surprising, considering the big critical and commercial success both book and movie were, even if the topic is of course a very American one. I see nobody's mentioned the book on this board so far, either... so I'll have to remedy that.

Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Aspiring writer Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan returns home from college, only to discover that Constantine, the black "help" who has been with her family since she was born and largely raised her, is no longer with their family and cannot be reached. At the same time, she begins to notice more and more how her friends and family treat their own helps - and so the topic for the book that is to start her off on a writer's career is easily found. Except that it turns out to be rather harder than she imagined to find maids who are willing to be interviewed for the book - especially after a young black man is mutilated and blinded after accidentally having gone to a "white" bathroom. Still, she finds one and then a second maid willing to tell their story anonymously, and so she can start writing her book - as long as none of her friends and family find out.

Stockett tells the story through three PoVs: Skeeter's and those of the two maids, Aibileen and Minny. The latter two are the heart of the book, considerably more interesting characters than the young, naive and at times astonishingly clueless Skeeter; still, the contrast works well enough most of the time. While Skeeter's preoccupations at times seem bizarrely frivolous next to Aibileen's and Minny's, that does allow Stockett to keep things from becoming too gloomy by switching between PoVs (although Minny offers her share of comic relief as well). It's unfortunate that few other characters have much in the way of depth, with the possible exception of Skeeter's mother; the antagonist, Hilly, the ruthless uncrowned queen of segregated Jackson, is little more than a stereotypical villain for the most part.

Stockett grew up in Mississippi in a family with a black help herself (albeit in the seventies, very different from 1962), and so has tons of personal experience to draw on; Skeeter is evidently modeled on herself to a considerable extent. So she certainly knows what she's talking about - but of course, one might say she has the same credibility issue that Skeeter has with her book-within-the-book, a privileged white woman writing about oppressed black women. Inevitably, she leaves herself open to criticism about presenting things as rosier than they were, as well as perpetuating the stereotypes about absent and/or drunk black fathers). It's not that she glosses over the bad and downright horrible stories - but one might certainly say the tone is fairly upbeat on the whole. In her explanatory commentary, Stockett mentions what is probably the key issue of the whole novel - whether the love between the black helps and their white charges can be a genuine and beautiful thing despite the racist, demeaning and even dehumanizing system the helps operate in. Evidently, her view is that it can, and that it should not be forgotten. The most moving part of the novel is, indeed, the storyline of Aibileen raising her 18th white child after losing her only son of her own, and trying to keep this girl from inheriting her family's racist views, the way so many of Aibileen's earlier charges did.

Plot-wise, Stockett does a good job in keeping things moving and building up tension for the climax, though I did think the later parts of the book weren't quite as good as the earlier ones - writing a good climax and tying things off properly is always hard, I guess. I still tore through those final chapters and stayed up late to finish the book, though, so make of that what you will.

Despite the serious topic and the number of horrible events mentioned in the book, most or all of them genuine, this book is clearly intended as a pageturner and a bestseller - and at that it succeeds admirably, especially since it's Stockett's first novel. It makes sense that the movie version would've gotten made so fast and been so successful - this book oozes Hollywood. A serious topic, presented in a way that outrages and shocks the reader while also making him/her feel better about how today's society is so much better than that, dealt with in an entertaining fashion and ending with the obligatory happy end (at least the rather weak romantic side-plot doesn't have a happy end). Such books and movies have the considerable merit of introducing the topic to people who wouldn't otherwise be interested in learning anything about it, but obviously they can also give offense by seeming to make light of that topic.

Recommended to those who are looking for something that's entertaining while still having some punch and relevance to it. This is not To Kill a Mockingbird, nor is it "the other side of Gone with the Wind" as the Sunday Times apparently described it, but it's a good book all the same.
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Kathryn Stockett - The Help - 25/07/2012 11:23:09 PM 5219 Views
I noted an odd contrast here... - 26/07/2012 12:51:54 AM 806 Views
Fair point. - 26/07/2012 07:14:27 PM 842 Views

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