The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the third book in my personal challenge to read and review 12 books in 12 months. You can see the rules I’m following for this challenge in a previous post, here. To read my first review, click here.
In this review series, I will do my best to avoid major spoilers. I will, however, tell you what kind of content to expect (romance, adventure, action, gore, sex, etc.) I know I like to see that kind of information when I’m looking for something new to read.
A brief overview of the book:
Genre: Historial Fiction
Content: This story deals with race, racism, and Jim Crow. There’s a small amount of sexual content, some violence, and some domestic abuse.
The Help is a historical fiction novel that takes place in Jackson Mississippi during the era of Jim Crow. It centers around the lives and struggles of several black women in the town, who work as maids in white households. Their employers expect them to raise their children and polish their silver, but don’t trust them or respect their basic human needs. One day, a young white woman named Skeeter who writes for a local column about housework starts asking her friend’s maid, Aibileen, questions about cleaning–and about what happened to the maid who raised her, who vanished without any explanation while Skeeter was away at college. Aibileen is reluctant to share the truth about the difficult lives of black maids with this writer, but as Skeeter comes to understand the conditions under which these women have lived for so long, the idea for tell-all book is born. Even under fake names, it’s dangerous for these women to share what it’s really like to work as they do, but this new opportunity for dialogue quickly becomes a vital outlet, and a source of hope for eventual change.
I initially heard about this novel as a college student. A couple of my classmates were taking an English class that assigned it. It’s been on my TBR list since then because my friends seemed to really enjoy it. I didn’t get to it for several years though, and nearly forgot about it, until the other day when I wound up watching the movie with someone. So I have to begin this review by acknowledging that I read this book after seeing the movie. Yes, if you’re wondering, I did enjoy the movie. I’d recommend both.
The book and film are very similar to each other in many respects, both with regards to plot and major themes. In both versions of the story, the thing that by far impressed me the most was the successful development of the characters without sacrificing the pacing. I know as a writer how challenging it can be to create a story that is both energetically paced and filled with well-developed characters. Kathryn Stockett does it here brilliantly.
Stockett uses first person to tell most of the story, but she changes the point of view, going back and forth between Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. One section, in which all three of the characters are present, is told in third person. The result of this is that the reader gets to see what each of these characters are thinking, and how they feel about each other, without the filter of a separate narrator.
I was very moved by the relationship Aibileen has with the child she is raising for her employer. Watching Skeeter come to terms with the reality of the maids’ lives was also fascinating, and I think it was a more honest coming of age story than a lot of the ones I read growing up. I also loved Minny. It’s hard to talk about her without spoilers, but she’s just beautifully spunky, and I love how bad she is at holding her tongue. We always know how Minny is feeling, and she doesn’t let even Skeeter off without a sharp word about reality.
One of the most incredible examples of character development that I really enjoyed in this story is Hilly. Yes, she’s a villain, but I’ve met people with some of her characteristics–minus the vindictiveness. I won’t get into present-day politics, but Hilly’s framing of the bathroom segregation discussion as a matter of public health is something we see mirrored today with other issues. While some of her other behaviors are downright vile, intentionally hurtful actions, her discussion of this issue seems to come largely from genuinely misinformed concern. I love villains like that: the ones that embody the little everyday evils of ignorance. It’s a mirror that reflects reality pretty accurately, even today.
I had trouble thinking of cons to talk about for this book because I enjoyed it so much. There’s one scene toward the middle of the book involving a bizarre intruder. (I can’t say much else without spoilers. You’ll know it when you see it.) I thought that particular scene felt very out of place with the rest of the story, but other than that one moment, it flowed marvelously for me.
To be fair, I checked out some other reviews to see if there was anything negative I missed as reader. The most common major complaint I saw in other reviews was that this book was written by a white woman–basically pointing out that the success of this book is an example of a white person benefiting from stories that aren’t really hers to tell. I have a lot of respect for this opinion because of my nation’s history and the issue of cultural appropriation, but I personally disagree with regards to this book. This is a work of fiction, and Stockett may not know from experience what it’s like to be Aibileen or Minny, but she actually grew up much as Skeeter did: raised by a black maid in Mississippi. At least on Skeeter’s end of the story, this is very much Stockett’s story to tell. She’s very aware of what was going on back then, and can fully appreciate the complicated relationships between servants and the children they were raising because she lived it.
I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, readers who enjoy stories that make them think, and people who are interested in the history and issues surrounding race in the United States. There’s really no better time to read this book.
Have any book recommendations? Maybe you’ve read this book too and have thoughts to share! Feel free to leave a comment below.