22 August 2011

The Help

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

The Help is a fictional up-close look at the tension between races in Jackson, Mississippi from 1962 through 1964. Eleven of the thirty-four chapters are told from the point of view of Aibileen, a matronly black maid who has faced the heartache of raising seventeen white babies until each grew big enough to adopt the unjust social norms and common racial boundaries of the day.

Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is not like the other white ladies who are served by Aibileen in Miss Leefolt’s dining room, certainly not like Miss Hilly who has introduced a new initiative in which the help is required to use a separate bathroom. Inside, Aibileen is shaken when Skeeter has the nerve to ask her if she ever wishes she could change things. Her initial response is, “Oh no ma’am, everything’s fine.” But the question nags at her and after a dear friend’s son is beaten blind for using a white bathroom, she agrees to help Skeeter with a project that will endanger their lives as they shed light on the astounding ignorance so prevalent in Jackson.

Skeeter Phelan narrates thirteen chapters in the book and is an endearing character with her awkward height and frizzy hair although not quite as loveable as Aibileen. She is determined to become a writer and begins by writing a housekeeping column in the local newspaper before a bigger, much riskier project becomes her obsession. Without fully realizing the potential consequences, she embarks on a quest to write a book using real stories from black maids serving white families all over Jackson. She documents their most touching and most disturbing stories, inviting them to cross the racial divide and speak the truth to a white woman they have no reason to trust.

One of the most reluctant of Skeeter’s story tellers is Minny, best friend to Aibileen and narrator of nine chapters. She’s big in every sense of the word – round and loud with no sense of when to keep her mouth shut. She’s the comic relief in this serious book with her wit and audacity; I found her stubborn honesty and unpredictability captivating. Yet she's only one of a whole cast of unique characters who each contributes something personal and fascinating to this rich book.

Stockett’s writing is superb except for one small glitch: chapter twenty-five is narrated by an omniscient voice which feels random and strange given that every other chapter in the book is narrated by characters with whom the reader has become well acquainted. The book is three quarters done at this point, making a sudden shift in point of view that much more jarring. Yet I haven’t seen this mentioned in any other review I’ve read so maybe no one else cares besides me. In any event, I got past this quirk and remained absorbed in the scene despite the fly-on-the-wall third person perspective.

Anyone ever ask you the exact moment you knew that you were in love? Well I knew I was in love with this book on page thirty-four. These words are the thoughts of Aibileen, after being introduced to her new bathroom in Miss Lefolt's home. They not only showcase the author's poignant writing but sum up the central theme of bitterness, broken communication and ignorance.

“My face goes hot, my tongue twitchy. I don’t know what to say to her. All I know is, I ain’t saying it. And I know she ain’t saying what she want a say either and it’s a strange thing happening here cause nobody saying nothing and we still managing to have us a conversation.”

I leave you with this quote and hope you'll enjoy reading The Help as much as I did.

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