Saturday 30 March 2013

The Help

Still trying to catch up with book reviews but this will be the last for a while as I'm busy over the Easter and until the end of next week really. Anyway, I've been meaning to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett for years. When I signed up for the 2013 Southern Literature Reading Challenge bing hosted by The Introverted Reader I realised that this would be the perfect year to read it at long last. And, at long last, I have!

This is a story, set in the early 1960s, and told in the first person but from the point of view of three people. We first hear from Aibileen who is a maid in the town of Jackson, Mississippi. Her employer is Miss Elizabeth a woman who does not appear to like her small daughter very much, primarily it seems because the child is not pretty. Aibileen, as with most maids, is the one tasked with actually looking after the toddler and takes it upon herself to convince the child that she is a good person and loved. Minny is next, she's about to be fired from her job looking after Miss. Walter whose daughter, Hilly Holbrook, is the most popular white woman in the town. Minny is a fantastic cook but can't keep her opinions to herself. Hilly wants to put her mother in a home and engineers a way to do this and fire Minny into the bargain. Minny exacts revenge but we're not told exactly what she does until close to the end of the book.

A regular bridge session is held once a week at Miss Elizabeth's house. And this is where we meet Skeeter, who is Eugenia, daughter of a white farmer and his wife, a well-to-do family in the town. But she is different. Alone in the kitchen with Aibileen, almost thinking outloud, she asks if Aibileen ever wished 'things were different'. And it's on this question that the whole book hinges, because Skeeter wants to be a writer, and, crucially she is not at all colour prejudiced. The woman who brought her up, the black maid, Constantine, disappeared under mysterious circumstances while Skeeter was finishing university. Told the woman moved to Chicago to be with her son, Skeeter is traumatised that the woman she thought of as her mother left without saying goodbye.

Aibileen lost a grown-up son a couple of years ago. Treelore had wanted to write too and had the idea of writing a book telling the world about the lives of black people in Mississippi. But he had died before he could start. Skeeter finds out about the idea and decides, with Aibileen's help, to write the book herself. She had applied for an editing job in New York, previously, didn't get it, but the woman running the publishing house advised her to get a job with the local paper, and *write*. Anything. Skeeter tells her what she has in mind and the woman suggests she get the testimonies of about a dozen maids in Jackson. Skeeter accepts the challenge, but how to get a dozen very scared maids to talk to her about their daily lives? Their jobs would be on the line after all.

Amidst all this we have the various conivings of Hilly Holbrook to keep the town under her thumb. She's number one wife in the town and plans to keep it that way, treading on whoever she has to tread on in the process. Not just the lives of all the maids in the town are threatened by this woman, Skeeter too is in danger. If Hilly ever found out that Skeeter is about to embark on a project that she would consider a betrayal of everything southern white women stoood for, there's no telling what she would do...

I think this was one of the most involving, absorbing books I've ever read. I think it could easily be my book of the year this year. I rarely don't want a book to finish... it's so rare it's almost unknown but I was quite bereft when this finished. I just wanted *more*. I'm not saying the book was wanting in any way, just that I loved these three women so much I wanted to carry on hearing about their lives.

The time period here is crucial as things were starting to change in The South. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. Kennedy was assassinated and so on. Bob Dylan's song, The Times They are a Changing gets a mention in the book and it couldn't be more appropriate, as they were. Against this background we hear of the day to day daily grind of black women in Mississippi. Not just their poverty but the way their white employers treated them. Segregation was of course the norm, but all kinds of petty, horrible little prejudices come to fore, the like of which, to my 21st. century sensibilities, sound appalling. The question of where black maids go to the toilet is a central theme in the book for instance. The whites don't want them to use their bathrooms for fear of catching some nameless 'disease'. Same with cutlery and crockery. The list is endless and, to tell the truth, brings a lump to your throat thinking about it all.

The thing about the book is that it's never preachy. The women here tell their story simply and with extreme honesty. But the fear in it is tangible. The maids fear for their jobs and for their families should they be fired. They fear retribution from the KKK if they or their husbands step over the invisible line. Skeeter should feel more safe but she doesn't. She's constantly on the receiving end of endless criticism from her mother because she's tall and 'not pretty' and can't get a boyfriend. Most of all she fears what will happen if her friends find out about 'the book'.

I could go on and on and on about this book. I loved it but at the same time was horrified by it. It made me feel that everyone should read it. It should be part of the English syllabus in our schools. The book I read is a library book but I need to get my own as I know I'll want to read it again. I hope Kathryn Stockett is writing something else. I wish it were more about Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter but assume it wouldn't be. Now I need to see the film to see how that compares. Read this book!!!

Oh and a Happy Easter to all who read and visit this blog. :-)


Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

I loved this book too! I did it the other way round from you - saw the film first and loved that. I think it will help having read the book first, because there were parts I found hard to understand, because of the accents!! But both are absolutely amazing.

I hope your Easter is going well - it sounds as though you're doing the cooking! My weekend is quiet - just me and Dave as we saw our son and his family last weekend. Have a great time whatever you're doing.

DesLily said...

I have the book but still haven't read it! I must be the last one in the world not to have read it lol.. ah well I will get to it eventually!

I hope your weekend doesn't leave you too pooped to pop when it's over! :o) (american expression lol)

Anonymous said...

I loved The Help. I need to read it again sometime soon. I was a small child at that time and grew up in Texas. I do not remember noticing separate facilities where I lived, but they may have existed. I know they did in other parts of the South.

I've wondered whether Kathryn Stockett would be one of those authors who has one good book in them. It's interesting that we haven't seen another yet.

Hope your holiday time is happy, Cath! We are having a quiet weekend.

Cath said...

Margaret: I now can't wait to see the movie. Will grab it from Amazon at some stage.

I'm cooking tomorrow but just for four of us, Monday my eldest daughter will cook for seven of us. Then my grand-daughter will be here staying until Friday. So, quite busy. Thank you, I hope you enjoy your quiet Easter too.

Pat: I can't wait to hear what you think once you've read it! I still have Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter on my library pile and wonder if the issues in it will be similar.

Kay: Perhaps you were too young to notice, or possibly Texas was not the same as Mississippi. I have heard that Mississippi was one of the more hardcore states when it came to segregation. But I am by *no means* an expert. I feel like I want to read deeper into the subject to be honest.

I wonder the same about Kathryn Stockett. Margaret Mitchell springs to mind when I think of 'one good book' authors.

Thank you, enjoy your Easter too. So nice to hear from you.

Val said...

Brilliant review ..I have this waiting to be read :0)

Happy Easter :0)

DesLily said...

ohhh I really liked Crooked Letter Crooked Letter! but I am not giving you any hints as to what it's about lol..

Cath said...

Val: When you eventually get to it I hope you like it as much as I did.

Pat: That will be my next read for the Southern Lit challenge. You recced it to me weeks ago and then when I brought it home both Peter and Jenny said they had already read it and that it was an excellent book. So you have good taste!

I just pre-ordered The Hobbit after reading your post. You are a bad influence! Not that I wasn't going to get it anyway... LOL.

Susan said...

You make me want to read The Help, when I wasn't interested before! lol drat, and I just gave my hardcover (a gift) are definitely influencing me, Cath! for the good, of course :-) Good review, and you make it sound like a very good book. I will be checking for it at the library.

have a happy Easter,Cath, and enjoy having your granddaughter for the next week. Hope you get a little reading in, too. And some sunshine and warm temps would help you too!

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath,

I'm with Pat, one of the last people in the world to read this book, although it has received such great acclaim from one and all.

This period in the history of both the US and UK, is not one to be very proud of and as you say, isn't something which we should ever leave out of a school curriculum, it should always be there as a reminder of 'man's inhumanity to man', although looking at the state of the world right now, that's probably a forlorn hope!

We have had a quiet Easter so far, although we are spending the day with my brother and his family today. Yesterday Dave had to check out a potential problem with his trail in Cheddar Gorge, so we spent the afternoon there. The place was heaving with visitors and the shops and cafe's were doing a roaring trade, even the ice ceam sellers! It was lovely in the sunshine under clear blue skies, although still a little chilly in the shade and the strong breeze!

Have a good Easter Monday,


Booklogged said...

I loved this book and felt the same way when it ended. I usually like to wait awhile in between reading the book and seeing the movie so that my memory is hazy but I watched this movie the same day I finished the book. Movie is very good, but you just don't get the depth of feeling that you do in the book.

Penny O'Neill said...

This will remain an all-time favored read for me as well. We read it for our book discussion group and had a very lively discussion about it, Cath. I even got my sister to read it, and she could not put it down.

I do not usually enjoy a movie based on a book, but, I must say that The Help was very good and held truer to the book than I thought it would - and the set designs were very accurate.

Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I read this long before it was well known. I picked it up by chance. And I totally agree with you - it should be taught in schools it tells you so much as well as being a cracking good story.

I have yet to see the film, mainly because the book was so good I don't want to be disappointed.

Cath said...

Oh Susan, you should *so* read The Help. I just know you would love it.

Had a lovely time with my grand-daughter thanks, but the temps could never be described as 'warm'. And still can't. LOL.

Yvonne: There, and I thought *I* was the last one to read this book. LOL

You're so right about this period not being one to proud of. And the UK was just as bad for racial prejudice as anywhere else.

Glad to hear people were out and about at Cheddar Gorge at Easter, the traders and B&B people surely need the money. I think more stayed home rather than going abroad for the holiday, so hopefully that helped a bit.

Booklogged: I think it's really hard to convey any really deep sense of feelings into a movie, not like you can with a book. But I'll be grabbing the movie as soon as I see it.

Penny: I bet the discussion was lively! Would have loved to take part. As soon as I can get hold of the movie I definitely will

Jo: Yep, so *much* information just in people telling their story in a matter-of-fact kind of way. I sometimes had to pinch myself to remind me that this was *fiction*.

Lynn said...

I loved this book as well - it's absolutely gripping and a real conundrum because in one sense you're gripped and reading almost in a fever and then in another you don't want it to end.
Lynn :D

Cath said...

Lynn: You describe The Help very accurately. I didn't want it to end. I wonder if we'll ever find out how the various women in it got on when what happened to them at the end, happened. So to speak...