Saturday, April 28, 2012

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book Details:
The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Genre: Fiction
Published 2009, Penguin Group
Paperback, 530 pages
ISBN: 9780425232200

          Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step. Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women - mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends - view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't.
Despite the length of this book, I raced through it with ease. I watched the movie before I read the book, and in this case, it made the book much more enjoyable, as I had a few ideas of what to expect. As for book versus movie, I think both are worth the effort, and the movie does a decent job of keeping to the book's overall plot.
The book is told in three voices: Miss Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. All three are very unique and specific to each personality, and all come through as strong and confident voices. Truly, I cannot say which voice is the strongest, as they all are essential to the narration of the book, nor can I really pick a favorite.
I grew up in Louisiana, and I can remember some of the stories my dad told me of my grandma's having "help" part-time. This book "struck home" for me because I can remember very clearly my grandma's racism, and how even my own dad still harbored some of that racism. The book does a very thorough job of illustrating how racism can infiltrate every mode of thought and speech, from hygiene and bodily functions, to dress and etiquette. Miss Hilly is the epitome of this racism, wearing her ignorance like a badge of honor, but there are varying degrees in many of the other characters. It is easy to see that in many of these situations, the people involved are simply victims of the times and can hardly be blamed for their perspective, as they were never taught to think differently. For that reason alone, I wish that this book had been based on a true story, for the good such a plot could have done in real life.
Miss Skeeter gives the unique perspective of the white women and how they come to fit this mold of hiring and lording over the help, even as she reevaluates her own issues of racism. With her, the reader is able to see into the minds of other prominent women in the story, such as Miss Hilly and Miss Leefolt, and how they reason and justify their treatment of the colored people they hire. Miss Hilly has the unique role of pursuing a greater separation between the two groups, whereas the other white women just go along with whatever they are told. While Hilly does pay the consequences for her behavior, it is unlikely her type ever really learns from their mistakes.
Aibileen seems to represent the voices of the older generation of colored help, mourning her losses of the past while attempting to adjust to the volatile climate of the present war on segregation. She plays the voice of reason for the other two women more often than not, always knowing how they should proceed with their secret project. Her personal focus seems to always be on the children, the ones she has raised that belonged to white women, as well as the loss of her own son. I particularly loved the effort she went through to teach Mae Mobley both self-confidence and an appreciation for humanity that ignores skin color, so much so that I use some of her same tactics with my own daughters.
Minny represents the voice of the younger, more emotional generation of colored help, with her snarky speech and blunt honesty. She kept me laughing from cover to cover, and it's her cooking I would love to try, even despite the pie trick.  Her character also brings to light the poverty and abuse that many suffered through as a result of segregation laws. What I found ironic is that both her and Aibileen, in their struggles to survive, showed a strength and maturity that seems to only arise under extreme circumstances of hardship.
While those segregation laws have been abolished, I know that many of those same mental biases still exist  - and not just in the southern U.S. This wonderful book is only a small part of the education required to erase the ignorance from the hearts and minds of all people. If there is one book you read this year, The Help needs to be it.

The Cover: About the only that makes sense with this cover is that the three birds are representative of the three narrators of the novel. I would have much preferred the cover of the book described in the novel.

First Line: "Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August 1960."
Since I watched the movie first, I find this an odd place to begin the book, but it shows how focused Aibileen is on the children she raises.

Favorite Quote: “Ever morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision. You gone have to ask yourself, "Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?”

Read For: Just for Fun Challenge


Micaella Lopez said...

Hard to believe that this was our world, not too long ago. This book is an excellent story of not only how different life was for blacks, but for women as well, in the early 60s. I am into disc 10 of the 15 disc audio book, and hanging on every word. Poignant, moving, conjures up a slew of emotions. A must read.
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