Oh how the best laid plans and intentions can go awry. You may have heard me mentioning that in order to egg Polly of Novel Insights and myself to read Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ a little sooner (as we had both been meaning to for ages) we arranged to have a rogue book group of just the two of us on Monday night. Well by that point Polly was only a third of the way through and I had barely started. So instead we had dinner and watch the movie of Peyton Place which we both rather enjoyed. The next day I picked up ‘The Help’ properly, I know I am very late to this book people have been raving about it for ages and it’s been a choice on a TV Book Club here in the UK, and simply couldn’t put it down.
‘The Help’ is a tale of three women in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Two of the women, Aibileen and Minny, are black maids looking after the houses and children of white women who spend their times organising benefits and spending their husbands money. Skeeter (or Miss Skeeter/Miss Phelan as she can be known) is a white woman in the area with a difference as though she mingles with the other white ladies she doesn’t really feel like one of them and not just because she is the only single one left (hilarious scene with her mother about this are plentiful) but because she sees things differently. In fact as her closest friends Hilly and Elizabeth discuss having separate toilets fitted in their houses for the black maids Skeeter almost falls out with them as she questions the need. You see while these ladies are happy to have home help looking after their children and cooking their food they don’t actually want to be ‘contaminated’ by them.
As the novel moves on Skeeter looks back at her childhood and her beloved maid Constantine who vanished while she was at college and decides she wants to know what happened to her and in doing so wants to know what it’s really like for these women and how they are really treated, she also wants to write a book about them (I will admit I inwardly groaned at this slightly predictable cliché but it did work and moved the story on). Minny meanwhile after a rather rogue incident has to find a new job with a rather reclusive and strange mistress and Aibileen is getting more and more attached to the child in her care who’s mother doesn’t seem to care for at all. All strands merge and create a wonderful tale of three rather marvellous women. The outcome of course you will have to read yourself but be prepared for much laughter and some tears and anger along the way.
I have to hand it to Stockett as for a debut novel this is something really rather special. The era is drawn out for you warts and all and yet never to the point where every single thing is described, she’s clearly researched everything but isn’t going to show off about it all as some authors tend to do. There are those fiction books that read like a text book every other paragraph, this isn’t one of them. The three main characters are drawn wonderfully; Skeeter being quite a character gives you an insight, through her friend and family and occasionally herself, into the minds of the white woman at the time. Minny and Aibileen, though in similar circumstances, are completely different personalities with their stories to tell and each ones voice rings loud and true; the brashness of Minny and the cheek in contrast to the more demure and often emotional Aibileen.
I found Stockett’s set up of Skeeter’s family an interesting one as living on a cotton plantation her family made masses of money from slavery, the author reminds us of this now and again and so it contrasts with Skeeter as a person. I also really admired that Stockett doesn’t preach, and that could be very easy in a book like this. Instead she creates a tale that looks at both sides (the villains are truly villainous) from both view points. It serves as a great reminder just how recently all of this actually happened, and reading Kathryn Stockett’s non fictional addition at the end you see just what impact it has all had on her and why she needed to write this book. A marvellous tale from a debut author who I think we can expect great things from. I would suggest you pick this up when you have lots of spare time as you might not be able to put it down.
A book that will: make you angry and hopeful, laugh and cry, and leave you missing the three main characters long after you have closed the book and popped it on your shelf. 9/10
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;
The Long Song by Andrea Levy – A tale of the plantations of Jamaica and its people in the last years of slavery with a narrator you will not forget. A wonderful book.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan – Tales of the cotton farms in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940’s as war rages and people of both colours have to come together despite their differences to fight for freedom.
So who has read ‘The Help’ and what did you think, I suspect there are lots of you. In fact maybe I should ask who hasn’t read this yet.