Good Reading is Hard to Find – The Help

18 May

I like to think of myself as a modern, cynical gal. Which is why it is with a heavy heart that I admit I really enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett, a book set in 60s Mississippi in a town that prides itself on its strict racial segregation. It’s told from the perspective of three likeable ladies – Aibileen, a long-suffering black maid who takes professional pride in raising other people’s children; Minnie, a younger, less restrained maid whose temper lands her a job working for a “trashy” white woman snubbed by the society ladies (primarily for her Dolly Parton-esque style choices); and Skeeter, a white university grad who decides to start compiling the maids’ stories, while risking the ire of all of her former friends. Of course, by participating in this covert attack, all three women (but particularly the maids) risk serious physical harm as well, which Stockett smartly reminds us of many times.

I expected to dislike this book, because liking a story about three brave women battling racism, classism and sexism is just too easy, y’know? I jest, of course, but this seems to be the critical consensus when it comes to stories with universally appealing themes. With a quick cover glance and a couple review skims, I was fully prepared to skewer it for being saccharine and shallow. And ok, it’s not the deepest pond in the (forest?).  The baddies are mostly just bad (with the exception of peripheral characters like Skeeter’s mother, who gets cast into the well-meaning but ignorant role). And the victories that all three women manage to wrangle by the end seem a little too convenient – with the exception, again, of Skeeter’s story – two of her main plot arcs remain unresolved (Stockett’s resistance of a happy romantic ending was particularly refreshing). But yeah, on the whole, the good and bad characters all get theirs in the end.

So you can complain about this being optimistic or too simplistic, but it is supremely satisfying and Stockett is a natural storyteller. She weaves these three characters so effortlessly that it takes no time at all to become consumed by their stories. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up seeing this on the silver screen sometime soon. It’s got cinematic potential all over the place, with its emphasis on strong personalities, sassy humour, and a whole fill-you-with-rage-tug-at-your heartstrings range of emotions.

I loved every moment of it. I admit that it didn’t really blow my socks off in terms of challenging ideas or use of language, but I don’t think it was really going for that. What it does achieve – offering up an inspiring story told by three distinct  narrators – it does so beautifully.

I’ve always hated the idea that we turn to certain books, films, and TV shows to “turn our brains off.” Turning your brain off sounds boring, and this definitely wasn’t that. But it was such a delicious relief, after months of dipping into every book suspiciously, constantly on guard with, “Do I like this? Do I not like this? Why or why not?” to simply fall under a book’s spell until the last page was turned.

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8 Responses to “Good Reading is Hard to Find – The Help”

  1. Buried In Print May 18, 2010 at 6:43 pm #

    Y’know, I had the same reservations and suspicions, and also ended up impressed and satisfied. If it had been “any more neatly tied up with a bow at the end”, I might have felt the experience tarnished; but, as it was, even though parts of the resolution were a wee bit incredible, I was so invested in the characters by that time, that I was willing to set that aside.

    I read a quote somewhere about a writer who said that she had been criticized for giving her characters some happiness as their stories came to a close, and she said that if she didn’t look after them, nobody else would, so it was up to her. And there was an awful lot of sorrow in this book, so I was more-than-contented to allow that Kathryn Stockett “take care” of her characters in the end.

    • Lija May 18, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

      Thank you for expressing something I had a hard time with. Are unhappy endings automatically more sophisticated?

      And yes, you’re right about all of the unhappiness in between that the characters refer to (although those incidents don’t make up so much of the plot that the book focuses on).

  2. obsidianrazor May 18, 2010 at 7:42 pm #

    I saw this today and considered picking it up. I couldn’t help imagining the tutors of my Master & Slave module in Uni talking about it. Alas, I got distracted by a shiny penny.

    • Lija May 19, 2010 at 9:38 am #

      Yeah, get it! I don’t think I’ve read anything about it that wasn’t written by a woman, actually.

      • obsidianrazor May 19, 2010 at 11:09 am #

        The only one by a man I can think of off-hand is Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. But then again that is non-fiction (Unless you believed the rumours that it was ghosted), and he was more of a master and a slave until he became a key figure in the anti-slavery movement.

      • Lija May 19, 2010 at 11:11 am #

        No, I meant anything about this book by a man.

  3. Margo May 18, 2010 at 9:43 pm #

    We are picking this as the next WOM hit – it’s the only PB release of the last few months that has legs, aside from Philip Kerr & (maybe) the Byatt.

    • Lija May 19, 2010 at 9:40 am #

      I had to look up “WOM,” but now I’m picking up what you’re putting down! I’ve heard people say that they envision it as a big hit for book groups, too.

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