Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: The Help

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Tiny synopsis: It's the early 1960s in Jackson Mississippi, a time when African-American women raised, fed, and cared for the children of white families. "Skeeter" Phelan is home from college, with degrees in communication and journalism. Unfortunately (according to her mother) Skeeter did not return with the only worthwhile thing a girl procures in college: an engagement ring.     Aibileen has raised seventeen children over her years as a maid. She's seen and heard a lot while serving luncheons and watching children. Too much.     Minny, Aibileen's best friend, has a bad reputation. She knows she shouldn't talk back to the white ladies that employ her, but she truly can't help it. It keeps getting her fired. The three women form an unlikely friendship when Skeeter asks for their stories as she writes about "the Help's" perspective on things.

This was a good book, and I think a fitting review for MLK day.

As Aibileen points out early in the book: (this is paraphrased) people all know Mammy from Gone with the Wind, but nobody ever asked Mammy what she really thought about her job.

In this book, Skeeter explores that question, trying desperately to get the maids of her friends' families to talk to her about their experiences. The book has as a backdrop the Civil Rights movement, and Stockett doesn't sugarcoat it. She gives national and local examples of exactly what could happen to Minny and Aibileen if they dare to help Skeeter.

Stockett's not the first person to explore this question. I remember as a student in Charleston learning about a Spoleto Arts Festival exhibit where an artist explored this same dynamic.
She grappled with this idea: that white children continue to be raised by African American women after slavery and through the civil rights era. The irony that a community can wholeheartedly implement an incredibly degrading policy like segregation, but at the same time expect these women to care for and love their children. That these children are allowed, in turn, to love these women, until of course the day they "grow up" and take on the conventions of their society, and begin to employ their own maids.  I remember watching a film in art class about the Spoleto exhibit. The artist (I can't remember her name, or even the year-- it must have been early 1990s) had found dozens of formal portraits of children in Charleston with their dahs (the local word for a nanny of this sort). She used these portraits as the basis for her installation.

I feel that Stockett approaches this in an honest and forthright way. She gives us the Mississippi of the 1960s without dumbing it down, and without pretending that people making less than minimum wage and being treated as subhuman would be happy with their lot in life. At the same time, when she hears various maids' stories, they are not all horrific. Don't misunderstand me: many are. But some relate experiences of families that helped their "help", who treated them with some degree of dignity and love. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the experiences cover the spectrum of how humans interact, and feels real because of it.

This was a good book: I recommend it if you're not up on your history of the Civil Rights movement, life in the South during Jim Crow (which was shockingly not that long ago), or simply want to read a story told from the perspective of three incredible women.


For an I Dig Reading Update: I have read six books so far this month:
Prada and Prejudice
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Masterpiece
Linger
The Help
Matched

January's donation (currently $30) will be going to Aussie flood relief... so I want to crank out a few more if I can. Classes start on Wednesday, which means I will be reading textbooks and papers for, um, about four months. Maybe I will squeeze in some smaller MG books while there is still time!

8 comments:

  1. I loved The Help. It was one I picked up and couldn't put down.

    I am so impressed you've read 6 books already this month. That's awesome!

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  2. I was actually debating whether or not I should read this book. You just swayed me to add another book to my TBR pile. :)

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  3. Grown up books are a hard sell for me, since teen books read so much faster and make me feel more productive but I've got The Help sitting on my shelf at home, now it's a matter of sitting down and reading it.

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  4. I quite enjoyed this book too, although I there was a lack of emotional truth to the storytelling. It is shocking how recent in history this is, isn't it! Also, I really like that you're giving your donation to the Queensland Flood Relief, it's been so heartbreaking and shocking, very generous of you :-)

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  5. Sorry, typo - that should read 'I thought there was..'

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  6. I thought it was riveting Meredith.

    Cool Pam, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

    I know Erinn, it did feel like it took forever to read... I'm spoiled by YA

    mummazappa- did the characters not feel real to you? Did you think they weren't that in-depth? I'd love to hear more on the emotional truth/storytelling.

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  7. I will read this at some point. Too many books on my TBR list!

    I found your blog from Carrie's, nice to meet you!

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YAY for comments! Thanks for adding to the conversation.