Yep, The Help. I heard about it when it came out, and know a lot of people who liked it, but I just wasn’t all that interested. I avoid non-genre fiction, book-club books, and bestseller books (mostly) by practice, and The Help was all of those things together, so there wasn’t much there to make me want to read the book. It wasn’t until I saw the trailer for the movie and realized what the story was about that my interest finally got piqued. Somehow, I had managed to miss out on the most important point — what the story was about — and almost missed out all together on the book.
I probably don’t need to tell you anything about the story, now. The book was a runaway bestseller, and by now you’ve probably seen the previews a hoopty-jillion times over, so there’s really no need for me to cover that this book is about a young woman from 1950s-era Jackson, Mississippi who takes on the role of collecting the stories of all the black maids from the town to reveal the social ills behind those roles of employer and employee (which were actually closer to master and servant, when you get right down to it).
There were a few things that were a disservice to the story, overall. For one, in order to illustrate the full impact these stories would have on the town and its social structure, the book had to be published, to there was never any real tension over whether or not the book would be completed. It had to be, otherwise a large part of the drama of the story would be lost. That’s not to say that Stockett didn’t write the story in such a way as for me to realize this; I was still hanging on with Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie as they waited to hear the news about the book. There was also one scene that served to prove to Minnie that Celia viewed her as a person and a friend more than she viewed her as a maid that was just plain random. I kept thinking that there were a ton of other ways for the author to create a scene where Celia had to come to Minnie’s aid than that, and as a result, I kept expecting that random encounter to come back up at some point later in the story (it didn’t). Finally, the story is told by the three main characters in alternating first-person narratives, but there was one chapter that was told from a third-person perspective, which just didn’t make any sense to me. I can sort of see why — the scene wasn’t seen from any one of those three characters completely — but there’s so much more of the story about other characters that’s narrated by the main characters as a “Guess what I heard?” anecdote that I didn’t see why Stockett didn’t do the same with that one chapter. It was jarring, more so because the voice of the chapter was so similar to the other characters’, anyway.
All that doesn’t change the fact that this is a very readable book, made so because of the characters. The protagonists were all working toward a great good against a large challenge, and it was very easy to sympathize with them because of that situation. Stockett did a great job of piling one hardship on top of another for the characters, to make their challenges even more difficult, which in turn makes the reader more supportive of them. And the antagonists were so despicable and so easy to hate that it was very easy to take sides in the battle. There was no moral ambiguity in the characters to muddy the waters of who the heroes and villains were.
When I first started reading the book, I was struck with how the author was trying to address a serious social issue that reflected the truth of race relations during that time through something as trivial as “The Help.” I understand that it reflected the truth of race relations at that time, but it seemed a bit pithy. Once the story really got underway, though, Stockett used real historical events to remind us that we might be reading a fictional story, but that the issue at heart was very, very real. It helped ground the story in reality, and remind us that we weren’t going to get through the story without some serious reflection.
I don’t know that this book really needs my recommendation for folks to read it, but I will say this, to folks who are like me and don’s usually read books like this: Don’t ignore it just because it’s popular. It’s serious, enjoyable, readable, and effective. And above all, it’s just a damn good story.