Thursday, January 10, 2013
Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Lately I have been thinking about how different the country where I grew up is from the country I call home now. Sometimes it's a minor detail, like air conditioning, and sometimes it's something so vast the more I consider it the more I understand that what I know is just the tip of the iceberg. This book make me think about the vast things, and I'm still reeling from it. I know it will stay with me for a while.
It is a testimony to Stockett's skill that she breathed enough life into this story to make me wonder how much of it really is fiction. She made the world of Jackson, MS in the 60s feel so authentic it's almost palpable with its sweltering summers, women so sweet and proper in public and positively vapid in private, and tragedies unfolding behind closed doors while the world is shown a flawless hairdo and a perfect outfit. The book may be set 50 years in the past but deep down inside people are the same everywhere, regardless of the date on the calendar, and Stockett making this book primarily about people is what made it resonate with me and other readers the way it did.
This novel had a lot of opportunities to be less engaging than it was, but fortunately the author avoided them all by changing points of view, incorporating elements of mystery and keeping up tension through subplots, as well as creating characters who were much more than initially met the eye. In fact, Stockett's tendency to defy expectations with her characters was my favorite part of this book. I loved the revelations of Lou Anne, Minny, Johnny Foote, and even Skeeter's mother (in a lot of ways that woman is so much like my mother it's scary). My favorite though was Celia, who in the naked intruder chapter proved that underneath her facade of pink manicures and extra tight sweaters there was a woman who knew how to stand up for herself and those dear to her, and who knew what was right, regardless of the conventions of the day.
Mother-daughter relationships get talked about quite a bit. It's no wonder, they are complex and there is a lot of ground to cover, and it may seem like everything has already been said, but in this book Stockett took the subject to a whole new level. I haven't heard a lot of people discussing this aspect of the novel but for me it was even more prominent than the subject of civil rights. So many mother-daughter relationships are shown here, some made me cringe, some warmed my heart, and the fact that the sweetest ones were the ones not between the natural parents and children made them bitter-sweet. It means so much to teach a child that they matter, that they are loved that broke my heart to read about mothers completely oblivious about this. I almost cried when Aibileen started teaching Mae Mobley that she was kind, smart and important, and I fervently hoped that this fictional child would remember the lessons into her adulthood. It's amazing to me how well Stockett showed the touching moments in this novel, she must have incredible powers of observation in addition to her undeniable talent as a writer to be able to portray them as she did.
There are so many reasons why I loved this book, the characters, their voices and their growth, Stockett's storytelling, the way the narrative flowed, and the thought-provoking subjects are just a few. Yet when I finished the book I couldn't stop wondering why in the world would the maids not talk about families they worked for in the past instead of their current employers. Why would they tell about the women who had the ability to ruin their lives instead of women who weren't in the picture anymore?
Yes, I understand, this is what was hurting most at the time, these were the "white ladies" mistreating them most recently. And yes, if they talked about the past there wouldn't be the same sense of immediate danger permeating the book, the tension would be gone. And yet it doesn't make sense to me from the point of view of caution. There was so much talk of horrible consequences should anyone find out, and how the names of people and the town itself would be changed to protect everyone. Did nobody think that should the society ladies read the book nine out of ten would recognize themselves and their friends? These Southern belles might be shallow and mean, but I find it implausible that Skeeter and the maids wouldn't give them the credit to not all be that oblivious and downright stupid.
So there I was, feeling let down at the end of an otherwise excellent book. Even new beginnings for the three protagonists only could do so much to fix things for me. Am I glad I read this book? Definitely. Did it make me think more about the world around me? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but when they finish it I would ask them whether they also thought the author cut this particular corner.