Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett *****

I've actually been reading (and listening to) a lot more books than my blog would indicate, because I've been lazy about getting the book review done and posted. The whole point was so I could go back and remember if I had read a book and how I felt about it, and I'm not even keeping it up!!

My sister had recommended The Help, and I had been putting it off. I really like a HEA in my reading - somehow loose ends and/or depressing endings really do a number on me. Not that I knew what the ending was, although I can say I felt it was a happy ending, if not Happily Ever After.

The help is told in 1st person POV from 3 characters, and also in one section in 3rd person POV. It takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi - a rather mixed up time when civil rights movements were making in-roads but in the South, individuals were still clinging to their outdated beliefs about race relations. The women of the Junior League all had one - "The Help" - but still felt that The Help should have a separate toilet, even in their homes, because they weren't clean. That didn't seem that outrageous then - black people had a different entrance and waiting room at the doctor, and different drinking fountains, and still had to sit at the back of the bus in a lot of places in spite of Rosa Parks.

Skeeter is one of the Junior League women who didn't leave college early to get married. She's come home, single, with a degree but no job prospect, while her best friends Hilly and Mrs. Leefolt (whose first name eludes me - that's a problem with audio books, you can't go back and find things!) got married and have children. Skeeter is feeling a little left out, a little out of place and she misses her own "Help", Constantine, who somehow disappeared while she was at college.

Aibilene is the Leefolt's "Help" - I'd say maid but she was more a nanny, really. She's in her 50s, and has lost her only son to a workplace accident. She has raised several white families' children, though, and the Leefolts have a 2 year old Aibilene is raising now.

Minny is a little younger and a lot sassier than Aibilene, something that has gotten her fired from other positions. When she loses her job working for Hilly's mother, she finds a new job - in spite of Hilly's black balling her all over town - working for Celia Foote - the woman who stole Hilly's true love.

Each of the characters gives the story pieces of the action as Skeeter decides to write a book. She determines that writing the stories of the women who serve Jackson's white Junior Leaguers is something she can tackle, and an agent in New York encourages her to take on the project. To be honest, I didn't feel that Skeeter really understood the depth of the racial divide, maybe not even after the book was published - it was more like she was just doing something she knew about. She had been raised with a good core values that included treating everyone humanely, and it embarrassed her to hear her friends talk about The Help - in front of them - as if they were dirty, diseased, to be condescended to. It was more than ironic that the Junior League's pet project was to raise money for starving children in Africa, when there were black children going hungry in Jackson - the children of The Help.

I did as I often do with books - I read a lot of reviews by other amateurs like me, on The majority of the reviewers rated it 5 stars, with a smidgeon rating it 3, and no one rating it less than 3. I decided to tackle the "3" to see what their problems were with the book. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at the number of people -reviewers AND commenters - who claimed to have been raised in the south during this time and declared it was never like that. They must still be wearing the blinders. I was raised in the south - the Deep South, mind you - , and yes, I think I can say people DID think like that, they DID talk like that (both the vernacular the author used for the maids, and the way the white women spoke) and they DID act like that. It was a very confusing time for everyone, and I could have been Skeeter (Ok, I was actually a lot younger than Skeeter, but ...). I mean, I understood her wanting to treat the Help like humans and not understanding why everyone else, including her own mother, talked about them as if they weren't human at all. We did have different waiting rooms for black people; we did have segregated schools; we did have different neighborhoods for black people, outside of town. We did have Help, although I never thought one minute about which bathroom she used. There was Junior League - there was lots of bridge playing mommas smoking cigarettes and gossiping - I'm here to tell you, those scenes and situations in the book existed.

So I listened to this on audio book, with 4 narrators (1 for each character, and 1 for that weird 3rd person part...) - those narrators speaking for characters were excellent - excellent!! They each did southern white and southern black accents so well, and they did other characters, children, men - all of them so well. At the end, I felt like things were looking up - although there was a lot of criticism in the reviews about how Skeeter got out and went to New York, leaving Aibilene and Minny behind. Each of the two black women were facing major turning points in their lives, but truly I felt all three were facing positive changes. I had imagined much worse.

The reviewers also talked about how many over-used, stereotypical characters there were. I must have missed the memo, because I haven't read that many books about southern women that used these characters - the overbearing Jr League president, the outsider white woman, the Help themselves. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is my first and only book with this plot and these characters. I guess I missed some books along the way.

I think the core of the book was more about how each of the three women handled... umm, dealt with, uh, lived. Yeah, lived during this time of confusion and change, how all the confusion and change of the Civil Rights movement affected their lives. OK, I'm not good at this kind of thing - I liked the book, I felt the characters were fleshed out (one man complained in his review that the men were so two dimensional - hello, it was about 3 women, not about any man at all....)

So there. I grew up in the south, white, with Help, and I say it portrayed real people and real circumstances and anyone who says it didn't is rewriting history!! Hah! 5 stars.