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The Help- A Review
Not Your Everyday Southern Novel
A Reader's Novel
If you’re an avid reader, I know you’ve experienced at least one book that stayed with you even as you slept—a book that the closer you got to the conclusion, the more you resisted finishing because you didn’t really want the story to end. I’ve experienced a story like that more than once-- the most recent one being The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Set in Mississippi during the cultural transitioning of the 1960’s, The Help is a story of the triumph of the human spirit.
The Story's Affect
To be honest, this review is coming after I read The Help for the second time. Upon the first reading last spring, I was too full to review it. What filled me was the simplicity of the storytelling juxtaposed against the bitter-sweet ending. Some of the book made me sad; a few instances made me angry. Not 1960’s angry, just human being angry. And I didn’t think I could do the book justice. I’m still not sure.
The strength of the novel hinges on its characterization. Ms. Stockett gives readers major insights into the personalities and motivation of the three protagonists: Aibileen is grounded in her relationship to God, not at all the Mammy she could have turned into. Minny is strong and angry, yet lovingly sacrificial, not the loud scary stereotype a less objective writer would have created. Skeeter is sympathetically torn between the culture which she has heretofore accepted and a life so foreign, she can’t even envision it. The major antagonist, Hilly is so entrenched in the culture the time that her racist rants don’t really offend. Readers see beyond her words and behavior and just shake our heads. We expected her. Ms. Stockett’s characters balance the story: not all the Black characters are innocent; not all the White characters are guilty.
The plot is simple. Skeeter, the one White protagonist, wants to be a writer. She gets the idea from her friend’s maid to write about the love/hate relationships between whites and their help, the maids. Constantine, her family’s former maid had given Skeeter just enough personal substance to make her question the South’s “Jim Crow” system but not enough to evaluate it objectively as wrong. The more she gets to know her co-conspirators and the more stories she records, the more her values solidify. Stockett piques readers’ interest early with the question of where Constantine is and why she quit her job. Each time Skeeter asks that question readers need the answer. When Skeeter finally learns what happened, she knows the maids’ stories must be told. Because the maids know the danger they will be in if the story is published, no one initially agrees to talk to Skeeter, but a personal indignity against first Aibileen then Minny wins those two over. And a full fledged crisis of consciousness eventually wins over the rest. Some of the stories are loving; some are not, but once the book is published, the issue becomes that the maids talked about their employers at all. There are definite repercussions.
Ms. Stockett’s goal is to show the artificiality of the lines that separate race and class. I believe she did that, though the message is so subtle it can easily be overlooked. Stockett pecks away at the lines in the telling of the sub stories and the sacrifices characters from both races make for their counterparts. Because the three main characters’ lives change drastically by the end of the novel, readers leave the story hopeful that the ladies' shared sacrifice was worthwhile to each individually. I highly recommend The Help; its 444 pages use simple vocabulary, making it a relatively quick read, and there is enough intrigue to hook you immediately . Since it will definitely leave you wanting more, you should check your local movie listings to see when it's coming to a theater near you. I can hardly wait!