Thursday 9 August 2012

August Orange book: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I have sat and stared at this part-written post for several days not sure how to write about this book. The book has raised a lot of fuss and response since it was published. It is a very good novel. It is very readable and the characters are warm and believable and real ... but it is an essentially superficial and slightly rose-tinted version of the situation at the time it was set. What discomfited me was that it did not discomfit me enough; it was as if it was saying that because these women were brave and strong and resilient that the situation they were in was somehow ok. The story is designed to be uplifting and heart-warming, not to essentially challenge or question the status quo.

Set in Jackson Mississippi in 1962 the book is narrated by three women, Aibileeen and Minny, black maids, and Miss Skeeter, an affluent young white woman with journalistic aspirations. Sparked by the unexplained disappearance of her much loved maid Constantine, Skeeter decides to try and write about the lives and experiences of the black 'help' who run the homes and raise the children of the middle class white families. The story follows the three of them as they learn to trust each other and attempt to break down the social barriers that keep them apart. While Stockett says in her postscript how "there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I have the ink or the time to portray" I ended up feeling that the book was too cosy and brushed too superficially over the potential harm that could befall the women who help Skeeter with her project. She is presented as a much more sympathetic character than the odious Miss Hilly, who we are encouraged to despise, but for all her rising awareness of the social and political iniquity she is not interested in doing anything to change the way things are. The civil rights movement is really beginning to gain momentum but the people of Mississippi want to keep their heads in the sand and pretend it is never going to affect them. In reality the book is a character book, about the women and their friendship and is quite self-consciously not political.

That's it really. I can't think of a good way to articulate what I thought about it, so I will give you this long quote. It is from a chapter by Minnie. It seems to sum up the situation and expresses the catch 22 situation that they are all in. She is talking initially about her employer, Miss Celia, a 'white trash' woman who has married above her social status and is struggling to understand her position and gain acceptance:

" 'She just don't see em. The lines. Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly.'
Aibileen takes a long sip of her tea. Finally I look at her. 'What you so quiet for? I know you got a opinion bout this.'
'You gone accuse me a philosophising.'
'Go ahead,' I say. 'I ain't afraid a no philosophy.'
'It ain't true.'
'Say what?'
'You talking about something that don't exist.'
I shake my head at my friend. 'Not only is they lines, but you know good as I do where them lines be drawn.'
Aibileen shakes her head. 'I used to believe in em. I don't anymore. They in our heads. People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there. But they ain't.'
'I know they there cause you get punished for crossing em,' I say. 'Least I do.'
'Lot a folks think if you talk back to you husband, you crossed the line. And that justifies punishment. You believe in that line?'
I scowl down at the table. 'You know I ain't studying no line like that.'
'Cause that line ain't there. Except in Leroy's head. Lines between black and white ain't there neither. Some folks made those up, long time ago. And that go for the white trash and the so-ciety ladies too.' " (p.311-12)

An interesting read, but you can see why it has also been widely criticised. I am going to move the film to the top of the Lovefilm list as I am very curious to watch it now.


  1. I confess I enjoyed it - a lot. I thought it was a powerful story told in an engaging voice. It did cross my mind that it was an audacious thing to attempt but I kinda admired her for doing it. I also felt that - while I can understand the criticism - it provided an eye-opener (for many people) in the kind of form that wouldn't 'scare the horses' if you know what I mean? Does that make any kind of sense? Like you, I'm looking forward to seeing the film and comparing.

  2. I haven't seen the film and probably won't. I felt the same way about the book as you did. I actually really enjoyed reading it because it was very "readable." But in the end I was like "meh." The characters were too stereotyped for me to REALLY care about them.


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