The Help (Kathryn Stockett)


To start off with, I was very unhappy about reading this book for Try Books!  As everyone knows, we are in the Deep South (Jacksonville, Mississippi, to be precise) at the beginning of the 1960s and our heroine–Skeeter Phelan–has returned home from university with a degree but without a husband.  Not having anything much to do, she first of all takes over a ‘Miss Myrna’ column of household tips in the local newspaper, relying on information from Aibileen the maid of one of her friends, since she has no idea of how to keep house herself.  Then she gets drawn into wondering about the lives of the black maids who bring up white children that become just like their mommas, and with Aibileen’s help she compiles a book of interviews with the maids that is then published…

The question that will mostly worry people is what is a white person doing writing such a book, not only in the persona of Skeeter but also adopting the voices of Aibileen and Minny, two of the maids.  Well, what worried me rather more at first was that the infeasibly tall (and hence unfeminine)  Skeeter Phelan sounded rather too much like the tomboyish Scout Finch to me.

But when I read the book the first time, I was rather impressed.  It was all well done and hung together without anything that caused me to cringe; in fact, the words seemed to be right, which ought to be the main thing in a book.  Nobody could really disagree with Aibileen’s mantra of You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important for raising a child.   I didn’t really believe in the maids coming forward to give Skeeter their testimony–surely they had too much to lose and nothing to gain?–but I was interested to see how the author worked it out.  Suffering from a nasty cold in my hotel room in Brussels, I allowed myself some sentimental tears at the thought that people are people, in spite of the lines that divide them.

After a second reading, I decided that I did have some doubts about the words and other things, as follows:

i)  in spite of having spent her student years reading rather than husband-hunting, Skeeter never refers to any books apart from To Kill A Mockingbird (which Johnny Foote, a good white man is also reading) and The Catcher In The Rye;

ii)  similarly, although all the characters are described as spending a lot of their time in church, none of them employs any Biblical allusions or turns of phrase that I can remember [but maybe the idea is to take the essence of Christianity out of its formal setting and put it in the maids’ unselfish love for their charges];

iii)  some other issues seemed to be dragged in, such as the disparity between the Help Wanted–Male and Help Wanted–Female adverts and Aibileen’s worst experience being in a family where the son was regularly beaten for being gay.

But I suppose my chief objection is the way that the characters who react in what we might take as an adequate way to the situation described are marginalised.  Lulabelle, the white-looking maid’s daughter who returned to insult a DAR gathering; Gretchen, the maid who expressed resentment and revolt at Skeeter’s project; and Patricia van Devender, the high-class white girl who slept with an integrationist are all relegated to the margins…

So we’ve got a kind of To Kill A Mockingbird aimed at the higher, rather than the lower, end of the Young Adult age range.

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