Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

Release: February 10, 2009
Author Info: Website
Publisher: Penguin Books
Age Group: Adult
Source: Bought (Thrifted $.50! Featured)

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women - mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends - view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't.

Excuse me while I make a few notes. People have had many things to say on the topics of this book, both in the intentions of good and bad. I'd rather say what I have to, and be done with it. You can skip down to the review if you'd like, but I can't bear to cut out my personal opinions on the issues of the book and the topics addressed within the story.

Notice: Given the fact there is a movie based on this book, I intend to stay as far away from the topic of those differences and my preferences. This is strictly a book review.

Warning: This book does have quite a bit of language and deals with the topic of race during a time of segregation in the South during the 1960s.
Frequent usage of the N-word and some adult situations.
I recommend for 18+.

Personal Note: I know there are people that feel a story such as this is nothing but fluff, hiding behind or using topics such as the ones touched on in this book as a way to write something 'greater' than they might have produced on their own. Using 'controversial' issues as a way to make their stories more important and launch them into a more serious sort of spotlight. Personally, I think that's a bunch of bull. Someone's going to do it no matter what you think or say, the issues are there, the topics will be discussed, get over the possibility of judging someone for it, and judge the product of it. Which at the end of the day is the point, they aren't telling you what opinion to have, they are merely presenting the idea.
The idea of African-American domestic house-workers in the early 60s, and their view of things. It may not be 100% accurate, but I feel presenting the idea and possibility is what brings this story attention. And it should, what were things like back then, how did African-American women live, what did they think of the world, they family they worked for, and the children they cared for? The world was beginning to change, and they were in the middle of it all, living most of their lives (working) in a white household.

I find stories such as these interesting, because of how I've been raised. Let me briefly explain.. I'm from California, where my both of my parents were born and raised, issues such as a race where never an issues even in my parents lives. It was something I never witnessed until I was 5 and had moved to Tennessee. Moving to the South at an early age was a culture shock for me, going from never judging anyone to having everyone judge everyone else, from the colour of their skin, to what accent they had, their native language, to what church you went to (which was never the right one). I spent almost 18 years of my life there.. I can't believe the way some people think and still live. But some people do, it's sad and appalling. /end

Hopefully I didn't bore everyone to death, with that out of the way, let's begin our review!

This book uses the changing of narrative, which is an amazing literary tool when used correctly. While fairly common I feel it takes a very good writer to pull it off well, Kathryn Stockett did more that than; this is by far one of the best changing narrative books I've ever read. I always find the concept interesting, reading from more than one character perspective, however I rarely enjoy it. I can't imagine this book written any other way.
What I appreciate most was, the lack of repeating situations over in different narratives that often, because it does happen. There was also very brief moments of playing 'catch up' between characters to get them up to speed, but it never took long or dragged. Whenever mentioned it added to the situation and what information was being shared.

Let's talk about the characters because they are each different and you see from each of their views, I'll try to avoid saying too much as the summary introduced them decently.

There's Aibileen who is wasting her life away because she sees no other means to providing for herself.
When she's introduce she's beginning to come to the end of her rope, working as a maid all of her life. She specialize in babies, until they start going to school and becoming more like their mothers/fathers. At that point she moves on because she can't stand to see everything she's taught them be over-turned by a women that hasn't paid them any attention or taught them until it's time to 'correct' what they've learned and know about the world.
Aibileen is a fairly quiet, calm, level-headed, loving character. Always ready to give some words of wisdom or bring some reason to the chaos. She put a lot of value into teaching children to feel good about themselves, along with overtime learning she can teach them things about the world before the roles of race begin to set in.

Minny is.. a sass-mouth. She's known for saying what's on her mind and finding herself without a job because of it. At the beginning of the story she crosses paths with Miss Hilly, the ring-leader of anyone-who's-anyone in Jackson, by working for her mother, Miss Walters, who's starting to lose her mind a little (probably more than that..). Hilly sets her up to be out of a job, in planning on taking Minny for herself, as she's known as the best cook in Jackson and Hilly has to have her. Only, everything falls apart and Minny does indeed find herself without a job, and on the wrong side of the worse possible person in Jackson, Miss Hilly.
At home she's got 5 kids, two of who are already old enough to work (and doing so) and an alcoholic husband who is border-line abusive, and only getting worse with time.
She's stuck between a rock and a hard place, putting on a tough act trying to keep her life together, with only Aibileen who sees through her and knows how bad things are.

Miss Skeeter, is that different breed of women that didn't go off to college for her "Mrs." She went to school for an education and a chance to make something of herself in the world, only to find herself back in Jackson, back on her parents farm, and not knowing who the women in Jackson are anymore, especially the ones that used to be her friends. She finds herself no longer able to relate or even enjoy speaking to her old friends, who are more concerned about being married, having babies, and keeping their help in line.
Skeeter dreams of being a writer and gets her chance when someone for a publishing company in New York gives her the time of day, to write her a letter that starts communication on what she needs to do in order to be 'a writer'.

I felt the flow of the characters and their differences worked. There's friction, that never quite boils over, and conflict that is met with reasoning as time goes on. For the most part Miss Skeeter and Aibileen get along, it's Minny that's the problem. Trusting no one, wanting no on in her life, but feels she has to look out for Aibileen, even if she won't admit it.
At the end of the day Aibileen and Minny only have each other to rely on, they know all their worried, dreams, and concerns, they know how to balance each other, even though their personalities are so different. Aibileen knows the times to wave Minny off and when to calm her down, Minny knows when to act up and when to quietly watch. Adding Miss Skeeter to the mix is found to create tension at first, although over time it begins to fade as Minny warms to her. Again, even if she'll never admit it.

What I enjoyed the most, was the differences in the people in Jackson, from the workers to their employers. How you learn more about a person when you talk to their help. Everyone in Jackson has an imagine and reputation to maintain, you don't get close to your help or people see you a 'sympathizer' (to put it simply). That doesn't stop people from treating their help better than some and worse then others.

This book is about there being more to the world and what it holds, most of all when it hasn't been talked about. Things happen, even if no one says anything. How you're raised does effect you, but it doesn't decide who you are or how you see the world.

The few downsides I have to state are the speed of the book. There are moments, around the middle, that the story sort of lulls, waiting on someone or something to set everything back in motion. Going through the characters everyday lives, while interesting, I felt like I was waiting on the main plot line to pick back up.
Along with the passing of time jumping around without being mentioned that often. One side character announces she's expecting, only to be 6-7 months along the next time we see her, followed by a few months after giving birth.

I suppose that's what I like about this book, while the location and the time you assume how things are going to be, after reading you find that things aren't always as they appear. There are people and their families that are different from the rest, that care for their help and treat them better than is ever discussed.
(Anybody that knows anything knows Mississippi was one of the worst places to be African-American during segregation. Although it's not like there was much of a safe place in the South during that time.)

Recommend: Issues of race, segregation, personal stories, drama.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I've heard a lot of good things about both. I don't think it's not fair to diminish it as fluff, because the important thing is that it brings an important historical issue to the attention of a larger audience, and if this makes people learn about it and maybe change their views, it's a good thing.
    As I'm not from US, I know very little about segregation, but I'd like to learn more, and my favourite way of learning about history is through reading (which often lead to further research). I've seen The Help in library a couple of times, but never picked it up. But I definitely will, some day.