Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Price: Rs 299
Genre: Historical Fiction / Social drama
I finally read the much-talked about and much-loved ‘The Help’ recently. It was a page-turner alright but only as much as a social drama could be. ‘The Help’ addresses an important time in history through a beautifully crafted story but it is not without its shortcomings.
The narrative alternates between three main characters – Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter (Eugenia Phelan). The story is set in 1962, Jackson, Mississippi.
22-year old, fresh out of college, Skeeter dreams of becoming a writer and, unlike her childhood friends, Elizabeth and Hilly, her life’s calling is not in finding herself a suitable match and settling down to the idyllic life of Jackson. In her attempts to make it as a writer, Skeeter finds herself looking for an interesting idea to work on a book. Her own fond memories of Constantine, the black maid who raised her, and the silent presence of several other maids with the families Skeeter comes in contact with, makes her believe that giving voice to their thoughts and experiences could be a path breaking idea for a book. Those were the times of strong opinions against the rights of black people, and a marked divide between whites and blacks in social diaspora.
Aibileen is the quiet and elderly African-American maid with Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, who spent her life raising several white children. She exudes warmth and wisdom. She lost her grown up son in a tragic accident while her husband left her for another woman many years ago.
Minny is a fat, talkative and quick-tempered African-American maid who is known to be the best cook around but she has a problem in keeping her mouth shut or minding her own business. She had to change several households as a consequence. She worked with Skeeter’s friend Hilly’s mother Miss Walters but she is thrown out on false charges of stealing silver. She eventually starts working for the enigmatic but endearing Celia Foote.
‘The Help’ is essentially about how these women come together to work on a path-breaking book for those times – compiling good and bad experiences of several black women who worked for white people. Although an enlightening anthropological study, it was a dangerous book to get involved with.
There could not have been a more simple yet apt title for this book. The main characters are interesting and fairly well-defined. But I had issues with other characters, say, for example, Hilly is somebody who embodies evil. She is the nemesis of every black maid in town. We don’t get to know too much about her beyond her strong opinions on showing black people their place! Besides, I felt there was injustice with Stuart and Celia Foote’s characters. I would stop myself from elaborating on what happens with Stuart but I thought he should have been at the ending. Ditto with Celia Foote’s character. The character was developed and abandoned. I also felt that the book predominantly had female characters. The male characters were too marginalized, as if they did not exist.
The book has a strong and serious theme of racism. The characters talk about the lurking ‘dangers’ but the reader does not really feel any.
The book holds your attention from the beginning but I felt the ending leaves a few loose ends. Like I said, some characters should have made it to the closure. I wanted to know what happened to them.
Nevertheless, what works for the book are its engaging storyline, interesting main characters, controversial subject and fast pace.
Needless to say, it is a must read.
P.S. I look forward to watching the movie now. It is always fun to be able to see these characters than only visualize. The first thing I did after finishing the book is searched for the actors playing various characters in the movie.
Image source: flipkart.com