The Help by Kathryn Stockett: a Book Review

The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. I loved it. I saw the film before I read the book – Octavia Spencer won a Golden Globe award as best supporting actress for her performance as Minny – and even though I knew the story I still found the book full of tension and completely absorbing. When I wrote about the film, I said I hoped the book lived up to my expectations. In fact, it did and more. As good as the film is, the book is even better and I think it’s one of the best books I’ve read for quite a while.

From the back cover:

Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver…

There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell…

My thoughts:

I didn’t find anything to detract from my enjoyment – even the fact that The Help is written in the present tense, which I normally don’t like, didn’t spoil it. I didn’t even realise it is in the present tense until I was well into the book. I think it’s better than the film because there is so much more in it, the characters are so well-defined, so believable, and the tension caused by the contrast between the black maids and their white employers is so appalling that I didn’t want to stop reading. The setting in Jackson in the early 1960s is tense to say the least. This book lives up to all the hype it created.

Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter are the three narrators and it is through their eyes that the book comes to life as they take turns telling their stories. As I was reading I could hear their voices.  Skeeter wants to be a writer and decides to write about what it is like working for white families from the coloured maids’ point of view. Aibileen is persuaded by Skeeter to tell her story in an attempt to change the prejudice and bigotry and improve the lives of the black population. Eventually other maids also tell their stories despite their fear of the consequences and the book is finally published. I was holding my breath as the story unfolded, would their cover be blown and how would the white women react?

It’s touching, poignant, funny, compelling and definitely thought-provoking. It’s a book that has stayed in my mind ever since reading it. I hope Kathryn Stockett writes more books!

  • My rating: 5/5
  • Author’s website: http://www.kathrynstockett.com/index.htm
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; Reprint edition (13 May 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0141039280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141039282

Book or Film? The Help

I have difficulties with films of books, so I don’t often watch them. I’m usually thinking as I’m watching – ‘it’s not like that in the book’ and irritated when the story is changed, parts are missed out or even worse new scenes/characters added in.

One of the books I’ll be reading in the coming weeks is The Help by Kathryn Stockett (our local book group choice for January). I noticed the film was on at our local cinema and with some reservations decided to see it. I thought that if I saw the film first it might not spoil my appreciation of the book. The book is described on the back cover as

Outstanding, immensely funny, very compelling, brilliant. (Daily Telegraph)

Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver …

I can’t be that good, I thought, normally I wouldn’t read a book with so much hype.

We went last night – in a howling gale! I was completely wrong in my expectations – the film was that good! I just hope the book can live up to it. The audience laughed, and then sighed at the poignant moments as the film rolled on and even if I couldn’t quite catch all the words I thought it was brilliant. It’s essentially a female, domestic look at segregation, with brief glimpses of the contemporary political scene.

I was engrossed in the film and now just want to read the book. So much so that I got it off the bookshelf when I got home and began to read it. Actually I began at the back with Too Little, Too Late – Kathryn Stockett, in her own words, in which she writes about her upbringing and personal experiences. She writes that The Help is ‘by and large fiction’ and wondered what her family and Demetrie, their maid would think of it:

I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid that I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature. …

Regarding the lines between black and white women, I am afraid I have told too much. I was taught not to talk about such uncomfortable things, that it was tacky, impolite, they might hear us.

I am afraid I have told too little. Not just that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or time to portray. (pages 450 -451)

She doesn’t presume to know what is felt like to be a black woman in that place at that time, but thinks

… trying to understand is vital to our humanity.

From my perspective I think she has achieved that.