Author: Katheryn Stockett
Published: 2009 (this edition 2010)
So, I once again find myself beginning a post by apologising for my absence- starting college seems to have resulted in me spending half my life on the bus and the other half writing essays! But no matter, I’m here now.. Anyway, after reading it some weeks ago, I’ve finally organised myself enough to write up my review of Katheryn Stockett’s The Help- the story of a white women named Skeeter working alongside black maids in 1960’s Mississippi to produce a book on their experiences of serving white families. I’d previously seen the film adaptation of this novel and enjoyed its more humorous aspects- most of which are embodied in the character of Minnie- so was excited to see if the book would keep me as entertained. I’m pleased to report it did, but not in the way I’d expected- I certainly didn’t think I’d be in tears. However, I also couldn’t have anticipated just how much it would make me laugh!
Much of The Help‘s appeal stems from its array of weird and wonderful characters, covering everything from sassy to pantomime villain. My fellow book lovers will feel a particular affinity for Skeeter- the nerdy, socially awkard protagonist determined to produce a book with a genuine impact on the racial hierarchy she clearly despises. That being said, I enjoyed the way she seems like a real, realistic character, rather than someone with a social justice related agenda their life seems to revolve around. The subplots about her Mother’s illness and her romance with a local politician’s son certainly serve to remind readers she’s human, rather than being a dull, politicised character who exists solely to ‘change the world’ and reach her goals. As for the maids she interviews for her book, it’s impossible not to like the kindly main character Abilene- her years’ worth of stories and firm insistence that other characters get involved really will remind readers of their own grandmother! The real star of the show, however, is her aforementioned friend Minnie, who grudgingly becomes involved in Skeeter’s project yet ultimately steals the show. Everything from the sass she hurls at her bosses, to her quiet anger at her abusive husband and casual racism to the infamous pie-related revenge she exerts on one particularly unpleasant employer serves to make her one of the most amusing characters I’ve ever encountered, but also one of the most complex and layered characters given the inner pride and anger her bawdy exterior masks. The sub-plot about the domestic abuse she suffers at home further seems poignantly realistic when one considers how many real-life victims have used humour and a tough face to deal with difficulaties in theit private life. If ever a character summed up the phrase ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, it would have to be Minnie with her strong, angry exterior, and the idea that she is strong enough to deal with everything life throws at her aside from mustering the courage to leave an abusive husband. Speaking of her husband Leroy, I should add that, while he’s certainly far from a pleasant character, he’s certainly not the villain of the piece. That particular accolade must be awarded to Skeeter’s ‘friend’ Hilly- an incredibly gawdy, racist character, but one who remains genuinely threatening and unpleasant, carefully toeing the line between pantomime villain and a genuine bigot. The thing I found most affecting about Hilly would have to be the sad fact that, given the current political climate in the US, one can’t help but think some of her views, as ridiculous as they may sound when put down on paper, may not be too different from the ones harboured by a minority of modern Americans. The one plus of this is that readers will definitely delight in seeing her (very humorously) get her just deserts!
As for the book’s plot and narrative, I certainly enjoyed the extra detail it includes when compared to the film, especially the extra character development devoted to both Skeeter herself and each of the maids she interviews. This is one of those rare books that succeeds in making readers feel as though they know the characters personally- an element helped by the fact the story is told using a first-person narrative split between Skeeter, Minnie and Abilene. Stockett further succeeds in creating an individual personality and voice for each woman, perfectly conveying everything from Skeeter’s awkward shyness to Minnie’s disdain for her employer Miss Celia. The narrative is so good, in fact, that the only part of the novel I was not as gripped by was the brief period when Stockett switches to a much more generalised third-person narrative when describing an event all three women attend. Put simply, the book just isn’t as entertaining without its protagonists’ witty observations.
The plot of The Help is far from difficult to grasp- in essence, it really is just the tale of a young woman decides to write a book raising awareness of the racism she regards as an important social issue. What makes this book special then, is the background information and sub-plots deployed to give us an insight into the characters’ personal lives, emphasising just how realistic they seem. Everything from the abuse Minnie suffers to Abilene’s grief over her dead son is described in such a way that one feels it could be happening to their close friend. Stockett is also able to perfectly portray the social divisions between the white and African-American characters, stressing the different lives they lead and the opinions they have of each other, but does so in a humorous way that does not make the novel descend into a collection of depressing tales of stringent racism. In fact, the author ensures Skeeter discusses both positive and negative stories dictated to her by the maids, giving readers some hope and positivity by stressing that not every white person in the 1960’s held abhorrent views like Hilly. On the contrary, some of the tales told are both heart-warming and oddly realistic, and the only time stereotypes are used to poke fun at a character is when they are used with regard to Hilly- the perfect example of a character too self-absorbed and vain to realise how others laugh at her antics. That being said, the book does still succeed in portraying the more offensive aspects of pre-Civil Rights America, most of which are embodied in Hilly’s ‘Bathroom Initiative’. Without being too political, I’ll also reiterate my point that the divisions depicted in this book do seem sadly relevant to certain places in America to this day. As a whole, though, Stockett does well to make such a heavy issue seem that little bit less serious, and it’s certainly refreshing to see a novel about racism where it’s the white characters being mocked! I certainly never predicted to find a novel about such a serious subject so hard to put down. As for the funniest part of the novel, I leave you with this little hint: the characters trying to guess whether it’s their town the anonymous book was written about, and the reason they never receive a conclusive answer, is absolutely priceless…