Book Review: ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett

Posted: 1 March 2013 in Book reviews
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‘The Help’ is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel. I seem to have a trend of seeing the theatrical releases of popular books before actually reading them. This has happened with Harry Potter, Eragon, Twilight, The DaVinci Code (which I have yet to read), and this. The nice thing about having seen the film first, is that while I read, I can see just how close they came to keeping true to the novel.

This story is in Mississippi in the 1960s. It revolves around the lives of three characters: Minny, Skeeter and Aibileen. Aibileen is the help at Elizabeth Leefolt’s, watching over her daughter Mae Mobley. Minny is smart-mouthed and was the help at Mrs. Walter’s (the antagonist’s, Hilly Holbrook, mother), but later works for Celia Foote. Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan is a recent college graduate who has moved back home to find her family’s help, Constantine, no longer there.

Minny and Aibileen are best friends and confidants. They share their troubles and joys as the suffer through the back breaking work of caring after someone else’s home and offspring. Life was not easy, but not overly difficult for the soft spoken Aibileen before Skeeter came around. She loved working caring for children. She had a knack for it. She’d had her own child, Treelore, but he had died some years before. Tending children filled that hole in her heart if only for a short while.

Skeeter was different from everyone else in Jackson, especially her friends. She wanted more in life than to simply get married and settle down, which is exactly what her mother wants her to do. She wants to be a writer. Skeeter soon landed a job writing the cleaning column for the local newspaper. Naturally, she knew nothing about cleaning. With Elisabeth’s permission, she began visiting with Aibileen to help her write the column. One day while they were chatting, Aibileen mentioned a book her late son Treelore was wanting to write. Days later, Skeeter decided on a plan that would change the lives of these women forever.

At first when Skeeter proposed the idea, Aibileen was against it. I mean, who wouldn’t be when anyone who attempted to change things ended up hurt or dead. She decides to after she overhears Hilly discuss with Elisabeth the benefits of having separate toilets for the help. The reality of the children she grows to love becoming like their parents is unceremoniously thrust into her face and she chooses to help Skeeter. Revealing the details that she did was not easy. Most of the time, she resorted to writing it down before Skeeter arrived. After some time, Aibileen was able to get Minny to take part.

Minny didn’t have an easy life. She had an abusive husband, and after the lies Hilly told, couldn’t find any work. She finally had to take up work for the one person Hilly wouldn’t talk to, Celia Foote. Hilly disliked Celia because she was married to the man Hilly had loved. Celia tried to make nice with the other women, but as they were all Hilly’s minions, she could never make any friends. Celia’s antics often frustrated Minny, especially that she wouldn’t tell her husband that she had a maid working for her. Minny was adamant about not speaking with Skeeter. She eventually agrees to it, but it isn’t easy for her either. She keeps wondering why any white person would care what the help thought.

When their stories were finished, Skeeter shipped the manuscript off to New York to Miss Stein, a publisher who has been encouraging her writing. They are told to include many more stories by the following January and she might have a chance to read through it. The problem was that no one else would do it. Fear was ingrained in the people. When a prominent Black citizen is killed, a score of maids determine to have their voices heard. As the end date looms ever nearer, a problem arises that if their employers read the book, they might lose their jobs. To keep this from happening, Minny relates a story that she had vowed to never tell anyone. This single story is the key (besides changing all the names in the book) to keeping everyone safe.

This book was simply amazing. I recall stopping reading one night and holding the book to my chest. It was like I was partaking of something so profound, something deep and personal. I was being given a glimpse into a time when racism was veiling in the guise of normality (such as when Hilly tells Elisabeth that Skeeter better be careful because there are real racists about, without considering that herself is one).

I’ll start off with the writing. Someone said to me that they didn’t like the book that much because the writing was hard to understand. I found the writing ingenious. It reminded me of ‘Thrawn Janet’ by R L Stevenson (who wrote ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’). It was challenging to read because it was written in the voice of whichever character the author was using. Yes, I did find it challenging at times, but nothing too difficult. I loved the way they spoke. It really made the character. I rarely have found a book written in this fashion. The way the chapters were designed reminded of ‘The Bartimaeus Trilogy’ by Jonathan Stroud. Chapters were designated for a specific character and after a few chapters, the point of view changed to a different character. I liked that because it helped you understand the driving force behind each character.

Kathryn did an amazing job with her characters. I truly hated Hilly. She was such a nasty woman. I’m grateful to say that I have never encountered someone quite like her. I met people who exhibited aspects of her, but nothing as complete as her. I loved how the difference between how men and women acted was explicitly detailed. Hilly showcased many of them. She was vindictive, spiteful, ruinous, and so on.

Minny, Aibileen and Skeeter are all uniquely different and wonderful characters. Minny was my favourite. She had such sass. She had such a strong minded personality that hid a softness and protectiveness for those she cared about. Celia was also wonderful. She has one of those rags-to-riches stories that made you fall in love with her. She had a genuineness to her, and a naivety. Minny couldn’t handle being treated as an equal. Celia would never fit in for so many reasons, and it was really too bad that she tried.

I could go on and on about how wonderful this book is. I borrowed the copy that I read, but now I need to get my own. It is hard to imagine that it took her so many tries to get published, but Kathryn never gave up. This story is also semi-bigraphical. Not that any of the characters came from her own life, but she lived similar circumstances. She had a maid growing up and had many of the same experiences the white characters had. This story is one that needed to get out to the world. It is a mirror to the past that many (myself included) never knew. It is sometimes hard to imagine that people thought as many of the characters did. I am so glad I live in a time where most of us have progressed forward in our thinking and how we treat other. We still have far to go, but books like this show us how far we really have come. Definitely read this book. Enjoy 😉

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