I am not sure what initially drew me to The Help. Perhaps it was the pleasantly yellow, Impressionist-style background that caught my eye, or its central co-op placement on a table at Indigo Bay and Bloor, which provokes the type of eye-catching, back-cover-skim, grab-and-go purchase that publishers and booksellers cherish deeply. After learning that Stockett had received 60 rejection letters and negative reviews, I was, at first, skeptical about cracking it open on my morning commute for the first time. Put simply, I was so glued to the page that I completely missed my stop! The California Literary Review calls it “an old-fashioned page turner”, and The New York Times hailed it as a “button-pushing, soon to be wildly popular novel” — I couldn’t agree more.
In the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, 1962, three women have decided they’ve had enough of the situation in Jackson, Mississippi. Aibileen, a middle-aged black nurse and housekeeper, has raised seventeen white babies, and finds it harder each day to turn a blind eye to the unfairness of her perpetually devastating, demeaning situation. Minny, a hot-head with a smart-mouth, who has been fired several times due to her impertinence and unabashedly straightforward nature, struggles to keep her newest job, the secrets of her latest employers, and her temper in check. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a twenty-three year old white college graduate and writer, stifles her angry feelings towards Hilly Holbrook, the novel’s villain, and her inhumane treatment towards the help.
Hilly is a Jackson socialite, advocate of segregated washrooms for the coloured, and self-centered hypocrite. She works tirelessly to campaign for “The Poor Starving Children of Africa”, though contemptuously regards the black people in Mississippi as unintelligent, diseased, and dangerous.
Skeeter, dismayed at what the world she grew up in has become, devises a rebellious plan to secretly befriend and interview the help, these wonderful black women with their myriad stories, and publish them in an anonymous book — if all goes well, she has a chance at her dream job in New York City. Life has dissolved into a boiling pot of Minny’s signature soup with the lid clamped firmly on top, and the three of them are about to cause a monumental explosion in Jackson, forever.
I appreciated the unique narration (Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter), and the way that Stockett manages to speak in three distinct “voices” throughout the book, which is a testimony to her ability as a writer. Minny was a memorable character; she wasn’t portrayed as either good or bad, but rather a deeply complex woman, her sad past a heavy, debilitating shadow.
Stockett does a good job of constructing multi-faceted, many-layered and, most importantly, human characters, whose emotions of love, anger, triumph, frustration, compassion, good and evil, we can all, inherently, relate to. Aibileen is my favourite character — she was the most developed and insightful of the main voices. Her stories of the children she raised, and the eventual segregation from them, were sad and thought-provoking. However, the characters of Celia, Skeeter, and Skeeter’s mother, I found, were not illustrated as thoroughly, leaving many gaps open for (mis)interpretation.
The issue of racism is highly apparent throughout the novel — it is not one that Stockett frighteningly avoids, or sugarcoats. She is blatant and clear, with a comedic undertone. The voices of her main characters tell stories filtered through slave vernacular, white-collar parlance, and the jargon of 1960s Mississippi. It is a very phonetically-appealing novel.
“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”
The Help, admittedly, is realms away from anything I have ever experienced first (or second)-hand in my life. Though, somehow, I can see and hear the story, vividly. And, at the end of the book, I feel something. I feel empathy. Anger. Understanding. Inspiration.
“I want to yell so loud that Baby Girl can hear me that dirty ain’t a color, disease ain’t the Negro side a town. I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in ever white child’s life – when they start to think that colored folks ain’t as good as whites … I pray that wasn’t her moment, pray I still got time.”
As for the ending, I was, initially disappointed. I was left wondering about the resolution with her mother, and the fate of Skeeter. It built up a lot of suspense, then ended quite abruptly. Lynn Crosbie, in The Globe and Mail, slammed the novel for its historical inaccuracy and lack of reference to other illuminating writers and events of the time; she also insults readers by claiming that only those lacking education in American history or good Literature would appreciate the book. This is an ignorant, offensive, and self-indulgent comment.
Let us not forget that this is a work of fiction, which means that the author has the right to depict her story in any way she deems fit. Stockett may not have lived through the Civil Rights Movement, but she was born and raised by a black maid in the American South — she has an idea of the race and class dynamics at play in her novel. It is incorrect to assume that there is only ONE version of a particular story and that Stockett got it wrong because her characters don’t cite the “right” authors or events during that time, or didn’t concentrate enough on writers like Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison. Does that mean that Hemingway’s depiction of 1920s Paris is not exhaustive, or that Edith Wharton is tunnel-visioned? Stockett chose her story to be about the social relationships between black maids and the white women for whom they work, against the backdrop of 1960s Mississippi — as she imagines it.
When you think too much about what an authour should have done, you miss out on what they HAVE done.
The book accomplished everything it sought to: it brought the issue of slavery in Mississipi to the forefront, introduced the world to memorable, inspirational characters, and told a story. I had the privilege of having my book signed by Kathryn Stockett at a signing – she was funny, honest, and extremely kind. I’m looking forward to the film directed by Tate Taylor, starring Viola Davis and Emma Stone – in theatres August 10. But I’m seeing it early because my wonderful friend, Ikhlas Hussain (check out her blog), gave me tickets to the advanced screening on August 8!