Saturday, August 21, 2010
Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Kathyrn Stockett has written her first novel based on her own experiences growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and listening to stories her grandmother's maid told her as she snuggled on the woman's lap. The Help means, therefore, black maids in white households where they were treated as inferior beings who were dirty and carriers of disease. The story is set in the 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement was gradually changing things; it includes, for instance, the horrible murder of Medgar Evers.
Skeeter Phelan, the protagonist, is the character obviously based on the author. She is in her early 20s, a graduate of Old Miss with a degree in journalism, and her married friends and her mother pity her because she doesn't have a man. She doesn't spend her time on her hair and makeup, and she doesn't really care about finding a husband. Her best friend, Hilly, is married and thinks of herself as the leader of the young white married women, and Skeeter of course. She heads the Junior League, tells everyone what to do and what to wear, and they all follow like a bunch of sheep. Hateful is the word that comes to mind.
The other main character is Aibileen, maid to one of the sheep. This woman ignores her little daughter, and the girl turns to "Aibie" who loves her dearly. The stories of Aibileen, Minny and other maids breaks your heart, especially since we all know that's the way black servants were treated in white households. They are humiliated. For instance, Hilly's big campaign is to make everyone put in a toilet for the use of maids because God forbid they should use the white bathroom and contaminate the household.
Skeeter wants to be a writer and after speaking with an editor in New York, she comes up with the idea of writing what it's like to be Aibileen, Minny, or another maid who works for white folks. Her naivete is unbelievable at first but she catches on as she secretly writes her book. The maids who cooperate are putting themselves in serious danger but they've just had enough. When one of them is falsely accused of stealing, by Hilly of course, and ends up in prison, the maids tell Skeeter their stories.
Each of the characters has her own unique personality and character and this is what I love best about this book. I did worry about the dialect used when the maids talk, thinking that perhaps it belittled them. But in truth they did speak differently and it certainly helped separate the conversation without overuse of "Aibileen said" or "Hilly said". Skeeter is a character you can't help but love, but on the other hand I wanted to slap her silly at times.
I think the book drags in some places. It takes Skeeter the longest time to come around to a decision, even in her naive ignorance of the danger, but then she shows real backbone. There are side issues and exaggerated characterizations of a type. Minny's boss, Celia, is a hoot for instance. On the whole, I liked this book but didn't love it. It's a great story, one well worth your time, but it moves like people do in the South on a hot, humid day.
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