Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I’m a little judgmental—I tend to stay away from books that I see being picked up by middle-aged ladies.

I’m not proud of it, but this habit has rarely steered me wrong. I’ve avoided hauling around books with that Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the front cover for years now and that’s enough for me. So I was pretty sure that I was never going to read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Too many baby boomers have nabbed it because they have been told to by the television and People magazine. Yet, it somehow ended up on my Kindle and, before I knew it, finished. Now I feel a little ashamed about being so hardheaded—it was an amazing book.

Set in early-1960s Jackson, Mississippi, The Help is narrated in turn by three women: Aibileen, an African-American maid who watched 17 of her white charges grow up and enter a society that she can never enter; Minny, another maid whose personality is ill-suited for the demeaning position; and Skeeter, the white woman who does not fit in with the Southern debutante society. With the help of Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter embarks on a path to give a voice to the pain of Jackson’s black help.

What makes The Help an exceptional book is that there are few clear edges. Yes, there are heroes that the reader is clearly supposed to support, but Stockett does not portray the white homeowner/black maid dichotomy as evil vs. good. The sentiments become mixed as maids raise white children from babyhood and these kids remember their help with more fondness than their distant parents. In her afterword, Stockett reveals that she too was raised by a hired black woman, which triggered her interest in this particularly Southern relationship.

The plot itself is very predictable, which gives it such a mass market appeal. Stockett’s writing, however, imbues all three of the narrators with rich, unique voices that make this book a joy to read. This is definitely a book that I would read again in a year or two, just to listen to the melodious Southern accents in my head one more time. I guess what I’m saying is that I was really, really wrong this time around in avoiding this book. I am suitably ashamed.

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