Monday, 7 May 2012

The Help (Author: Kathryn Stockett)

The Blurb from Penguin: 

The book that has taken the US and UK by storm. 

Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver... 

There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. 

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell...

My Thoughts on The Help: 

So much has been written about this book already that whether I say “Oh, I loved this book” or “Phew, I am so glad I’ve finished that one”, it’s all been said before. 

Firstly, though, I have to say that I really wish I had not read the appendix, Too Little, Too Late, as that rather put me off the author. To me, her tone was like something from the days of “Gone With the Wind”, almost an exercise of self-mitigation, but really coming over as self-congratulation, as in, “Oh, look how enlightened I am”. I just didn’t buy it.  Sometimes it really is better if the author remains a totally unknown quantity. 

Anyway, back to the book. I felt that the ending seemed to come too soon, that it just simply dropped on the reader suddenly after what seemed to have been a very drawn out story. For me, after becoming so intimately acquainted with these southern belles and their put-upon “help”, it was as if Ms Skeeter was saying, “Wow, here we go, it’s a done deal; here’s your money; I’m off to the big smoke”. I realise that I am not expressing this very well, but for some reason this book doesn’t inspire me to make my thoughts more lucid than this. What is it about the book that is, for me at least, somehow really mentally messy? Perhaps it’s the thought of all the abuse that will be hurled at me for not becoming one of the adoring fans of The Help. 

Regarding the people who walk through the pages of Kathryn Stockett’s book, I wanted to care far more deeply about Aibileen and Minny than I did, but they struck me as being caricatures more than characters. Unfortunately, I felt that way about almost everyone peopling this book. Ms Skeeter just annoyed the hell out of me, and the idea of her traipsing in the dark through the ghetto area, swathed in dark clothing, at times even arriving in a Cadillac, was really quite silly. As for poor “white trash” Celia, I can’t help wondering how it is that the sort of person who would fall in love with her could have once been engaged to the ghastly Ms Hilly. That really jarred with me, and I could not accept it at all. As the book progressed, it occurred to me that there was a real problem with the male of the species in The Help. The white men are all portrayed as incredibly weak, while the black men are mostly drunken wife-beaters. Either way, they are no more than wallpaper in this work, and the sort of wall paper you would really rather paint over.  

Having said all this, there are some passages which I considered excellent, places where I thought, “Ah, this is a great bit of writing”, such as the portion where Minny, who is undoubtedly my favourite character, is speaking about being beaten by her husband and she says: 

   “How can I love a man who beats me raw? Why do I love a fool drinker? One time I asked him, ‘Why? Why are you hitting me?’

   “He leaned down and looked me right in the face, ‘If I didn’t hit you, Minny, who knows what you become.’     
   “I was trapped in the corner of the bedroom like a dog. He was beating me with his belt. It was the first time I’d ever really thought about it. Who knows what I could become, if Leroy would stop goddam hitting me.” 

I think that what I take away from this book is a feeling of the need to examine my own attitudes, to face up to the little prejudices which pop up regularly, even though I consider myself free from racism, and so therefore, while The Help is not a book which I consider a particularly good one, it was for me a worthwhile read.

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