The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn StockettThe Help by Kathryn Stockett
Published by Amy Einhorn on February 10, 2009
Genres: Historical
Pages: 465
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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Be prepared to meet three unforgettable women:

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women — mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends — view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't.

This year, one of my goals is to read more of the books that have been collecting dust (unfortunately literally) on my shelves. I’ve pretty much got as many bookshelves as my house can support, and they’re packed. If I want to buy more books I’ve read and loved, I have to make the space. The Help has been taking up space on my shelves for years now, since I picked up the hardcover at Goodwill. It’s one of those books that I felt I had to own but didn’t feel a strong impulse to actually read. But, because it’s such a large book, it was an early candidate for reading. It’s not going to make any space on my shelves, though, because it was so good I’m keeping it.

The day after I read The Help, I rented the film adaptation (curse films that are streaming nowhere), because I was curious how they handled it. This review will be both of the book and the movie, comparing how they handled certain aspects. I’d forgotten how much fun it is to watch an adaptation so soon after you read the book

For a novel largely about the black experience working as maids for wealthy whites in 1960s Mississippi, The Help surprised me in its nuance and complexity. No doubt it would have been different if written by a black voice, but I cannot speak to that experience. Still, for a white woman, Stockett did a really beautiful job. She avoids any easy stereotypes and relates the massive range of experiences.

That nuance, which makes the book so effective, is one of the things that the movie loses. In the novel, you get more of each maid’s story and a better range in the treatment these women received at the hands of their white employers; in the film, it’s pretty much just Minny and Aibileen with one brief flood of nameless maids that seem to be interviewed in just one night (rather than the actual months in the novel). The simplification is most clear in the modifications to the story of why Constantine left Skeeter’s family: in the book, Constantine’s daughter looks white, despite being the product of two dark-skinned black people because of a white ancestor, but in the movie she’s a dark-skinned woman who dares to act as an equal. The scene loses much of its effectiveness, and much of Constantine’s story is lost, as well as the impact of the knowledge that dark-skinned help were greatly preferred over light-skinned.

Where, in the novel, Stockett’s careful to frame the story with Aibileen’s experience and to open the novel with chapters from Aibileen and Minny rather than Skeeter, the movie very much focuses on Skeeter, the only white narrator of the novel. This change has a negative impact on the story as well, for obvious reasons. Clearly, there’s a white lens on all of The Help, but Stockett did everything she could to minimize that, and Skeeter’s POV in the novel really highlights the fact the intelligence of Aibileen and Minny and the way that, even while trying to help, Skeeter benefits from their knowledge. The movie isn’t quite as aware of that, I didn’t think, so it feels like more of a white savior story. The book, too, also has a bit more of the follow-up, so you could see how it was a small blip and she didn’t save them. It was more of a moral victory.

Given that The Help doesn’t really have romance and it’s not a happy book per se, I expected to be reading this for weeks, struggling through one chapter at a time. Instead, I was surprised to find myself engaged in the book after I was about a quarter of the way through. All the POVs are equally engaging, though I have the softest spot in my heart for Minny, whose brashness and outspokenness I deeply admire. (The terrible thing she did is absolutely the best part, made better by the fact that I absolutely did not see that coming in this sort of story.)

The Help does a marvelous job highlighting the various shades of white racism, and it’s sadly more resonant than ever in my lifetime right now. I would recommend reading the book over watching the film, because, while a close adaptation, I feel it misses out on a lot of the subtleties that really make the book work.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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