Monday, April 25, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help The Help The Help

I took a writing class a couple of weeks ago and the instructor said that one question to ask when writing is why tell this story now. What is so unique about this story that it needs to be told at this particular time? Well I think the same question can be asked when reading something. Why is this story being told now? This question may not be easily answered with every book. Sometimes there really isn't a reason. And there are times when there is one distinct reason or possibly many reasons.

For The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the answer falls under the latter category. The reason the stories of these two maids and this young white woman from Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s are being told at this particular time is because in order to appreciate where we are we sometimes have to remember where we came from. Our nation has recently made history by electing the first African-American President. But just a few short decades ago this accomplishment was the furthest from our thoughts. There was a time in our history where a portion of our citizens weren't allowed to attend the same schools, the same libraries, live in the same neighborhoods, even use the same restrooms or water fountains as others. A time where someone like our current White House inhabitant would be looked upon as diseased or less than human. I think this is an important thing to remember in order appreciate, whatever your political views are, just how important this accomplishment is for the Nation. As a young black woman living in New York City, I can't even begin to imagine living in a time where I wasn't allowed to attend whatever school or use whatever facilities I pleased, and I'm sure there are many out there who feel the same way. That such rules are absurd.  But for Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids of Jackson this was their daily reality.

The story is told in sections in the points of view of Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny, being black maids, come from an entirely different world than Skeeter, a young southern white woman. Two worlds that at the time were never to intertwine except within the roles of employer and employee. Skeeter, in trying to achieve her goal of being a writer, decides to write a book about life as a maid from the eyes of black maids and goes to Aibileen, Minny and other maids who work in Jackson for their stories. With the actions of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement going on in the background, this venture proves to be both dangerous and inspiring. More importantly, their venture breaks down the barriers of society's prejudices and injustices and allows these three women and the separate worlds they reside in to come together and realize just how thin those barriers are.

One of the major challenges Kathyrn Stockett felt she had to face in writing this book was being able to express life as a black maid during this time period even though she, being a southern white woman, never experienced it herself. I think after reading this book many can agree that it is so well written and the points of view are so well expressed that you honestly forget who actually wrote it. Even down to the dialect. The characters, even some of the minor ones, are so well developed you feel like you know them personally and if you were meant to like them, then you would always like them and if you were to hate them you would always hate them. For example, even during times of total humiliation, it was impossible to feel any sympathy for Miss Hilly. You're actually mad to feel sort of glad when something bad happens to her. And the switching between points of view allows for you to not only see the world through one particular character's eyes and how they interact with others, you also see how they're perceived by others and how other characters interact with them. For example, when Aibileen and Minny interact, from Aibileen's point of view, Minny comes off as strong and tough, although Aibileen feels Minny may not be as tough as she lets on. But when you look from Minny's point of view, you find just how scared Minny actually is and what feelings and thoughts she's hiding. 

The pacing was good as well. Kathyrn Stockett knew how to keep us intrigued. She picked the exact right moments to leave one character's point of view and move on to the next. And when you think that nothing else could surprise you, another surprise comes along, all the way to the very end.

I read on that some found the language and portrayal of black people in the book to be a little offensive, particularly when the maids refer to themselves. During a scene where Aibileen encounters a cockroach in her kitchen, she says "He big, inch, inch and a half. He black. Blacker than me." Some felt that this particular description was offensive because it makes the comparison of an black person to a cockroach. I did not particularly find this line offensive. I just don't think that way. But even if I did, I think you have to think within the context of the time that's being portrayed here. This is a time where black people were viewed as less than human, like vermin. And I feel that it isn't completely far fetched that despite  how unjustified you think things are or how proud you are, if you hear from the time you're little yourself being compared to a cockroach, in describing a cockroach you may make the comparison to yourself. By today's standards, making a comparison like that is offensive and degrading, but maybe in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s it wasn't. There is a lot of harsh language in this book and I don't mean swear words. But it goes with the time period, so viewing the language by today's standards is inaccurate.    

I found out recently that this book was made into a movie and is due in theaters this August. I saw the trailer for it and I must say I was disgusted. The actors that were chosen for the roles were nothing like what I had pictured characters. For example, at several points throughout the book, it was implied that Miss Hilly Holbrook was on the chubby side. The actress they chose to play her, Bryce Dallas Howard, doesn't look all the chubby to me. And it looks like they may have changed some of the plot, which I personally hate. I can understand cutting stuff out to save time and keep the action going, that's fine, but changing it. If it ain't broke don't fix it. The story has enough action in it that just cutting it here and there would've sufficed. From a cinematic point of view, it would probably be a fun summer movie in and of itself. But as far as giving justice to the fine literary work it is based on, I don't think so. I think it distorts it, as many films based on books do these days. So I ask anyone who is considering watching the film, do not judge the book on the movie. The book is great, completely lives up to it's hype and is well worth a shot.

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