I was a skeptic. I had heard the hype and still I avoided The Help by Kathryn Stockett. My book club decided to discuss it this month and I grudgingly put a hold for it at the library. The hold came in and I let it sit on my TBR shelf for a week before I finally picked it up one night at 10 p.m., with a sigh, and began to read. I figured I’d read until I got bored or fell asleep.
And then I read until an embarrassingly late hour. I couldn’t put it down. The next day, I persuaded my toddler to take a nap. Then, instead of taking a needed nap myself, I finished the book. This was a book I wanted to keep reading. I wanted to see what happened.
The Help has flaws. It is not a perfect novel in any way. But I really enjoyed reading it, and the themes it addresses and the way it is written (for the most part) all work together to bring me into it and make it a page-turner.
The Help is about three women in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, two of whom are black maids and one is a young white woman trying to come to terms with the civil rights movement so present in those years. From the first pages (once I got used to the voice, which is written in a black dialect for the most part), I wanted to know what happened to these people. I felt drawn in to the setting; it was like I was in Jackson, Mississippi. I liked that, and as my story above attests, I couldn’t stop reading this book once I started. I wanted to know how it all worked out, I wanted to see Hilly and her friends shamed, and I wanted to see the black maids, who had been discriminated against for so very long, come out on top.
My favorite character was Aibileen, who I found to be most clearly defined as an individual. I suspect Ms. Stockett began with Aibileen and created the other characters afterwards. I really wanted to know more about Aibileen’s story, her relationships with her charges, and pretty much anything. She was so clever. I loved Mae Mobley too. I wish she had a chance of not becoming like her mother.
I haven’t ever been to Mississippi, nor have I read much Southern literature, for some of the reasons Ms. Stockett mentions in her afterward/author note. I don’t have a favorable opinion of Southerners, given the history of racism. (I’m not to excusing Chicagoans from being racist, of course, but…) Of course, this is bias against the South is completely unfair, and Stockett’s book helped me to see that. But still, some of the things I noticed that I consider flaws might not be so if I had a better understanding of the Southern way of thinking.
The things in the novel that bothered me revolved around the characterization. Skeeter didn’t seem real to me, as compared to the two maids. It was inconsistent that Skeeter didn’t have a southern “voice” as the two black maids did, and Skeeter’s viewpoints also seemed unrealistic since she was suddenly noticing the race issue for the first time at age 24. I never understood how Skeeter was friends with Hilly. I didn’t think Skeeter’s personal development felt complete by the end. I also found the lack of Serious Repercussions to be unrealistic. I suspect it would have been difficult to get away with what they did.
In my book group last night, there was one woman who was raised in the South (although her parents were from California) and one who lived there for a decade in the 1990s. Both of them thought Skeeter’s attitudes and gradual realization of racism were accurately portrayed, and people still have attitudes like Hilly’s toward blacks. I guess I just have a hard time wrapping my mind around the Southern way of life. To think people still have these attitudes toward African-Americans makes it seems like a foreign country. Both of those women in my book group indicated that people in the South like Hilly still exist and don’t think they are racist. That is the most disturbing thing to me.
My new wonder is what do African-Americans think of this white woman’s portrayal of them? I wondered that as I read as well.
In the end, I really enjoyed reading The Help (given I couldn’t put it down!). I didn’t think it was perfect, and I probably won’t ever reread it. Maybe because I went in to it with low expectations, though, I found it a satisfying, engaging read well worth the hype.