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The Help: Kathryn Stockett. A Book Review.

Jo Ward itcherThere are plenty of novels exploring the issues of race in the U.S.A. aren’t there? So what does this one have to offer that is so different from the rest? ~ Jo Ward

The Help: The Plot

Set in 1960’s Mississippi, this book begins with the central character, Skeeter, returning home after graduating to discover that Constantine, her beloved nanny, has vanished. Setting out on a mission to find out what happened to her, Skeeter comes into contact with the black residents of her town.

Secret visits to the ‘wrong’ side of town lead to Skeeter making friends with women she has lived alongside all her life, but never really known.

Skeeter is keen to make a career for herself as a journalist – something not approved of by her social circle. As she tries to uncover the whereabouts of Constantine, she finds stories worth telling. The question is, are they stories that people want to hear? Are they even stories that people want, or feel able, to tell?

Hopefully I can start to answer that in The Help (Kathryn Stockett) book review.

***

Life Goes On

The 1960s were a time of huge change in race relations in the U.S.A. We know the big historical facts. But what is often missing is the detail of day to day ordinary lives. And the fact is, that for many black people, their day to day lives were unchanging. They got up in the morning and went to work, and were treated the same way by their employers, as they always had been.

And yet, there was a backdrop of political unrest. A sense that change may be coming. Kathryn Stockett captures this perfectly.

The ‘help’ of the title are the maids working for Skeeter’s friends. Her initial enquiries about Constantine lead her to uncover details of their lives. These details are not comfortable listening for Skeeter. It reveals her friends to her in a new light, but it also highlights race relations in her community.

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A Book of Parts

The Help
Image source: interactioninstitute

This book review for The Help is not about describing it, though. It is about trying to uncover what makes this book different from the others. It is written in three voices. Skeeter, and two maids, Aibileen and Minny. So what we have are three first hand accounts of life, from three different perspectives.

Skeeter is an outsider. She does not fit in, and never really has.

This is possibly what enables her to begin to understand the views of others, also outsiders. Her drive to find out more, and put the stories ‘out there’ is what really pushes the novel along. Skeeter represents the developing civil rights movement, in a conservative small town.

Aibileen works for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth as a nanny for her daughter, Mae Mobley. She is a rock in Mae’s life, as Elizabeth is too busy carving out her social niche to pay much attention to the little girl. Aibileen provides some stark realities for the reader (and Skeeter) to ponder. How can it be that the ‘help’ is not good enough to use the family bathroom (Elizabeth is on a mission to get Aibileen her own, separate bathroom – far more appropriate in her eyes than having the coloured help share the family’s bathroom), and yet is more than good enough to do something far more important – bring up Elizabeth’s child?

Say What You Think…

Minny, on the other hand, is very outspoken, and has lost many jobs as a result. She eventually finds work with a newcomer to town – another outsider, Celia Foote. The relationship that develops between these two characters is touching and provides another dimension to the book.

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What’s New?

I said this book review on The Help would explain why this book is worth reading. Well, here goes. It’s funny. There are some laugh out loud scenes. While the treatment of the black community is horrendous, there are certain individuals who find ways of repaying this treatment and the result is brilliantly written.

The fact that we have voices from both sides of the divide gives a unique perspective – it allows us to see both sides of an incident, or opinion.

Set in a time of great change, it gives an idea of how that change might have affected ordinary people.

But most of all, it is full of beautifully drawn characters. Stockett is able to create a wide range of people, from those you dislike intensely, to those you find yourself cheering on, to those you feel desperately sorry for. And they are not always the people you first think.

Gone With The Wind gave us slavery from one perspective at one critical point in history. Now The Help gives us another perspective at another critical point, with great characters, an absorbing plot and complex issues to ponder.

***

Summary

The Help is an insight into the culture of 1960s ‘deep South’ America, where the white community is fighting hard to retain its dominance over the black community, as race relations beyond the town begin to alter dramatically. There is much to think about in this book, but a huge amount of humour makes it a gripping read.

It maybe concentrates a bit too much on the women, however, with little information on what the men of the community made of the events.

What Do You Think?

Is Skeeter’s interest in her friends’ maids believable?

Do you really think Minny would have dared to go as far as she did?

What do you make of Celia Foote?

Give us your thoughts. We’re waiting to hear from you.

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