Book Talk: The Help

Cover of "The Help"While people rely on top 10 lists for hot books, I can sometimes tell on bus rides to and from work.  This summer one book seemed to trump the Twilight as bus reading.  I saw personal copies, lots of library copies, and even one e-book copy.  (The cover momentarily flashed before settling into its chapter.)  Whatever the copy used, the same engrossed expression accompanied the novel.  I made a mental note to read the novel and luckily had a copy loaned to me as a change of pace from The Hunger Games Trilogy.

The novel uses three narrators to tell the story of bigotry, conformity, courage, and grief.  Aibileen and Minny open the book to set the stage this is largely their story as they deal with injustice and slowly make changes almost in tandem with the seismic changes brought by the civil right movement.  Skeeter Phelan provides another shift in the 60’s as a young woman coming of age in a time women went to college not for a B.A. but for a B. FHub (Bachelor of Finding a Husband).  Skeeter returns to town ignorant of changes within herself as she questions her friend’s views and tries to find out what happened to Constantine, the maid largely responsible for raising her.  The result is a novel telling the story of the making of a non-fiction book about maids and their white employers, with various people learning to finding their own voice in the process.

Critics charge Skeeter is another white character brought in to show African-Americans the way.  Kathryn Stockett purposely introduces Skeeter well after Aibleen and Minny establish their voices in the story.  They show changes on a personal level as they do their jobs in the face of injustice until events within their own lives, not just the big historical events, force them to speak out.  All three women understand documenting the lives of domestic workers come with an increasingly fatal price not just through violence, but in the loss of social standing.  While some novels highlight lynching, beating, and other acts of physical violence;  Stockett shows Hilly’s vindictive nature as violent in its own right despite not a hand raised, or a gun, fired at a person. Yet Hilly herself dotes on her family

While the novel pays homage to To Kill a MockingbirdThe Help  feels more like a light read compared to other novels set during the period.  I did have problems with the male characters as they felt like the three types of men seen in chick lit:

  1. Enlightened dude
  2. Abusive husband/partner AKA the personal obstacle
  3. Largely absent guy

I would even say the conflicts themselves between character never delve deeper quick exchanges.  However, the novel itself can make a good launch point for other books dealing with the same time period.  If you pick up a paper copy make sure to check out Kathryn Stockett’s afterword section ‘Too Little, Too Late’ about the events inspiring her to write the novel.

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