Friday, June 4, 2010

The Help

By Kathryn Stockett
New York, Putnam, 2009

Week 23         Fiction

When you are in your 60s, the events of the 1960s seem not so very far away. If you are young, the Civil Rights struggle seems like ancient history. Stockett brings one small corner of the struggle to life in her novel, The Help, which deals with a small group of young Jackson MS upper middle-class housewives and the “colored” maids who serve them. These African American women, both beloved and despised, take on most of the burden of the homes and children; the young wives take on bridge clubs, church socials, Junior League and charity work—for the poor orphans of Africa.

Stockett, herself, was raised by an African American nanny in Jackson MS, so the book has the ring of truth about it. There is a semi-autobiographical feel about one character, Skeeter—perhaps the thinly disguised author—a budding writer who seeks to interview the maids and publish a book about their stories. Although emboldened by the Civil Rights struggle swirling around them, the women are also afraid that if their stories are told, they will lose their jobs, their dignity, and perhaps their lives. When the book, Help, is published and the Jackson housewives begin to realize that the stories are about them, all hell breaks loose in the community.

This book has it all: humor, pathos, irony, suspense, and a page-turning plot. There are a lot of characters to sort through, but the chapter headings and decent character development eases the transition from one story line to the other.

The reviews have been all over the book; the New York Times was quite critical, but the Washington Post mostly generous in tone. (I have included links to both.) One thing I noticed was that the maids speak in dialect while the housewives do not, except to use the term “nigra” and “colored” when speaking about the African American community. Wondered why. But despite the reviews, this book has been on the bestseller lists for the past year and will be the topic of discussion for our book club this month. Interestingly enough, Stockett’s childhood friend, Tate Taylor, optioned the rights to the book and the movie is in production right now.

This book has all the markings of a great summer read. I would recommend it for beach reading.

Here is the New York Times book review:

Also the Washington Post:

A rather long but interesting video interview of Stockett by Katie Couric:

Kathryn Stockett's website:

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