I felt a little late to the party when I started reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The book was all the rage last year and the movie was nominated for all sorts of awards this year, and only then did I consider opening it up.
I am so glad I did.
I don’t think the point of my post is to convince anyone that they have to read this book. In fact, I think everyone has gone home, the lights are on and after-party clean-up is in full swing. Oh well, I still feel the need to put out there my absolute favourite parts of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed the three points of view. I really admire when writers can narrate an entire novel from the inside of one character’s head – it is such a difficult task to make a reader feel like they know the other characters, but we really don’t…we only know what our narrator knows and feels. Truly a remarkable task. Stockett cleverly dodges this by giving us three narrators, three voices, three perspectives on the same story. Each voice is unique…Aibileen Clarke, mature and wise, Minny Jackson, hil-a-rious, and Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a young woman coming into herself.
Through each narrator we know the intimate details of the homes of the women of Jackson – just like the help knows their intimate secrets. The reader becomes one more person that these women gossip to about their white ladies. The beauty of using three different narrators is that I always hooked. Just when I was ready to really get into Aibileen’s story, there was Minny picking up where she had left off in a previous chapter – there was always something to look forward to….especially the discovery of the Terrible. Awful. Thing. (wow!)
Many reviews have likened The Help to To Kill A Mockingbird for the obvious reason that this novel is set in the deep American South, during an era of turbulence in American history – the Civil Right’s Movement and all the explosive and human issues that it encompasses. I can’t claim any connection to this moment in American history because I am a first-generation Canadian with a full Colombian background. However, as a female reader, there are other elements to which I can relate.
This novel offers some insight into the “working” relationship between blacks and whites. The tension of the era is palpable. Of the many violent and distressing moments related to racism in the book, for me the most disturbing was the moment Mae Mobley lied to her father. The four year old told her father that it had been her pre-school teacher, Miss Taylor, who had taught her about Rosa Parks and the sit-ins at Woolworth’s to allow blacks to eat at the lunch counter. The little girl lied to protect Aibileen. In that moment, her father taught her that equality was wrong. It shows how adults pass on their own fears and prejudice to children who would otherwise not feel these things. A very sad moment indeed.
We are reminded of this constantly by Aibileen when she notes that it doesn’t matter how much love a maid and the little girls she cares for share – one day the girls will grow up to be just like their mamas: prejudiced, entitled, feeling superior to and disgust for the black maid that lovingly raised them. A very disturbing fact indeed.
With this in mind, as much as this novel is about race, I think more importantly, it is about relationships between women. The good, the bad and the ugly is showcased in The Help.
This novel shows the kind of emotional strength and support that women offer each other in times of great need. In a time when women were still fighting for their own voice and independence, Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny demonstrated great courage to stand up to the status quo and it was the bond that they created that helped them do so.
As a contrast to the friendship that develops between Aibileen and Skeeter we see the bond between Celia Foote and Minny. I laughed loudly every time Minny described Celia’s antics and her fear at being discovered by Mr. Foote who originally did not know that Celia had hired Minny to keep house. Truly, a delight to read. Underneath all the mocking and insults from Minny, there is the undoubtful loyalty that Minny feels towards Celia. Here, the race lines are blurred and all that is left is two women who feel a little less lonely, a little more valued when spending their days together.
Stockett’s look at female relationships and their position in society is honest. She does not gloss over the evil that women can bring into each other’s lives. Hilly Holbrook is the antagonist and ring leader – she is the wealthiest and of most social importance and therefore wields her power against anyone who doesn’t comply with her views. Her attacks are vicious – not violent, but she methodically ostracizes any woman who dares to publicly oppose her. These adult women behave the same as or even worse than adolescent girls. Although, it is just another example of the powerless seeking some form of validation and power in the context in which it is permitted to them.
I read an interesting essay that made me look at this novel in a completely different way – where gender and race are layered. The author, Duchess Harris PhD, JD, claims that The Help is just another book that shows the great divide between black women and white women within the feminist movement. I hadn’t thought of The Help in this way, but I have to admit – I felt very disappointed when Skeeter leaves Jackson to pursue her writing career because Aibleen and Minny do not have that option. They are left behind without protection to face the wrath of Hilly Holbrook.
All in all, this is a book that made me laugh and made me feel deeply saddened by the way human beings can treat each other. Ultimately, any book that offers insight into human relationships, and prompts conversations about our position in society, our relationships and what we need to do to improve conditions for everyone – remembering the past and learning from it so it is not perpetuated – is a book worth reading.
What did you think of The Help?