Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I mentioned two months ago that I was participating in a mini book club and reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help.  I finished the book weeks ago, but conflicting schedules meant my book club members and I could never find a time to chat and see the movie together.  The founding member and I finally found time Friday night to meet and see the movie.

Stockett's The Help has received a lot of attention since it debuted in 2009 and even more so since the movie premiered in August 2011.  Like Joyce Maynard's Labor Day, I was first attracted to the striking yellow cover of The Help.  Now, after reading it, I am reminded forcibly of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Stockett's characters sing movingly in this novel.  Told from the perspective of three characters, two maids, Aibileen and Minny, and the woman who captured their stories, "Miss" Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, The Help seeks to highlight the injustice of maid servitude in Jackson, Mississippi at the height of the civil rights movement.  Stockett captures the mood of fear and turmoil of the 1960s well, but although each character has an easily discernible and distinct personality and voice, I found Skeeter's innocence about the true state of civil rights in her hometown to dominate the first half of the book - to its detriment.  (This, however, is a failing that the movie rectifies.)  Within the first two hundred pages of the book, I was so mad at Skeeter's ignorance and her desire to superimpose her voice on top of the maids really telling the stories that I thought about quitting the book.  However, I rarely leave a book unfinished, and I am so glad that I kept reading The Help.  It was worth it.

Many years ago, when I fancied myself a writer of sorts, I wrote a brief manifesto on writing in which I stated a good writer has the ability to elicit strong emotions from his/her audience.  A good writer can make the reader laugh, cry, scream, or throw the book across the room.  By this definition, Kathryn Stockett is a good writer.  The Help moved me to laughter and tears more than once.  The poignancy of Aibileen's love for the children she tended to and her own son who didn't make it past his early twenties reminded me of my own childhood babysitter Neen-Neen.  Her real name is Evelene, but as children, my sisters and I could not pronounce "Evelene," so she became Neen-Neen to us, and she always will be.  When I got married last November, Neen-Neen and her sisters sat in the pews with my family because she is my family.  Yes, some white mistresses, like Hilly Holbrook, did horrible things to their maids, but often the bond between family and maid was tight and full of love.  I am under no circumstances condoning the mistreatment of others, but I think The Help really captures that perilous and tenuous line that both maids and the families they served walked between love and servitude.  Everyone is caught up and constrained by their titles, which makes it difficult to move or breathe.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the story of Constantine and Skeeter's mother.  Although the movie took some creative liberties with this scene, the image of Skeeter's mother, literally caught between the DAR biddies and her love for Constantine, highlights this conflict.  Unfortunately, she conceded to the pressures of her life as a white woman in the South.  Her tearful sorrow over that fact later in the film does little to assuage her previous actions.

Stockett's novel is timely because prejudice and racial injustice of all types still exists - God only knows why, and I think Stockett realizes this, so she, like Skeeter, wrote about what disturbed her, but unlike Skeeter, I think Stockett lacked the bravery to write about what was happening in the here and now - not that that diminishes the power of her novel or the film.  I think the film is such a success because it captures the true essence of the book.

Best matched with the courageous, Southern spirit that exists in Southern women of all backgrounds.

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