Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Help: You need it
I know it probably makes me uncool to blog about a huge bestseller, but I was never one of the cool kids, anyway.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a book that I might normally pass up. It's historical fiction, set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. It's also most definitely women's fiction, which I've never thought was my thing. What got me to pick it up? First, I got it as a gift. Thanks, Mom! Second, the people I talked to who had read it said that what made The Help stand out were the voices. I'm a sucker for a great voice, so I picked up the book and now there's a day missing from my life (in a good way).
To be precise, the book has three voices: Skeeter, a white recent college graduate who is living at home in Jackson with no boyfriend and no job; Minny, an outspoken black maid with a talent for cooking; and Aibileen, also a black maid, who is devout and kind. When Skeeter is rejected for a job at Harper & Row, she is advised to work on her writing and really think about the stories she wants to tell. This leads to Skeeter investigating what happened to her beloved maid, Constantine, who stopped writing to Skeeter while she was away at college. In the course of finding out what happened to Constantine, Skeeter grows closer to Aibileen and decides that the stories she wants to tell are the stories of black maids who work for white families in Jackson. In the era of Jim Crow laws, just getting the maids together to tell these stories for the book endangers their livelihood. The women must meet in secret and when Skeeter's best friend Hilly gets wind of Skeeter's writing the book, she sets out to make things miserable for Skeeter. While Skeeter and Aibileen work hard to keep the book a secret, Minny is keeping a secret of her own: Her employer, Miss Celia, will do anything to keep her husband from knowing that she's hired Minny.
The voices make this book unforgettable, definitely, but I think there's another aspect to it, and that is that Stockett treats great human kindness as well as cruelty with equal care. She also stays far away from two of my biggest pet peeves in historical fiction, which are characters who rebel with twenty-first century sensibility in a time when they knew full well what the consequences could be for doing so, and forgetting that not everyone is super affected by every major historical event that comes along. Stockett always keeps her focus on the people, which I feel should be the focus of all good works of fiction. She gave her characters fascinating yet real lives, so they only needed each other to make for a great book. The setting is just as vivid as the characters, and it made me very glad to live in a time of air conditioning. No breakneck adventure, no zombie apocalypse, no torrid doomed romance, just an absorbing, thought-provoking story of three lives.