Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

My youngest sister and I are attempting to 'buddy-read', and we decided on Kathryn Stockett's The Help, about the life of domestics and their employers in Jackson, Mississippi during the sixties. The story unfolds through the eyes of three people: Aibileen and Minny, two black women working for different families, and Skeeter, a fresh graduate who is best friends with both of their employers (or in Minny's case, former). Skeeter, determined to write something significant, manages to convince Aibileen to start sharing her story as a colored maid, and this enables other women to give voice to their own struggles and loves.

My copy of the book came with a short essay by Ms Stockett, part of which I would like to quote here because I thought it was very telling:

'I am afraid I have told too little. Not 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 the time to portray.

I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something that any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand...

I picked these lines because as an Asian reader born in the late 70s, there seems little to tie me to this story, at least on the surface. I cannot review it and say that I know exactly the perspective from which Ms Stockett is telling her story. But what I think she elegantly captures is how lives simultaneously go on, twine and intertwine, despite imaginary lines that we draw and labels that we put on different people -- and it is to this that I hold on. We've always had help in our family, most of them staying for years. There are helpers I've gone to watch movies with. There is one who's made me godmother to her son. There is another who has racked up a (nearly) P30,000 phone bill, which she is still paying for up until today. We've had our ups and our downs. So to a certain extent, despite my being worlds away from the life that Ms Stockett paints in her novel, there were many instances that resonated with me as I read The Help.

I applaud how there are so many different and well-fleshed out female characters in this book. Aibileen is such a sympathetic old soul, in many ways the anchor of this story. It is Skeeter's story arc that we follow however, as the novel traces her starting out with an ambitious project that she doesn't know will impact her life greatly. One of my favorites in the book was Celia, a poor white woman who employs the unemployable Minny, whose own struggles as an outcast is touching. But as there are admirable female characters, there are also those who are vilified by their own actions. Still, I think Ms Stockett manages to portray them with much fairness, giving them nuances so that they avoid being mere stock characters.

The women's book project is the first of its kind and they risk so many things to get it out. But what I truly like is that how they never really set out to change the world or even their community. They just wanted to tell a story. In The Help, Ms Stockett produces a worthy debut novel that deftly captures that very simple goal.


Monique said...

One of my best books for the year. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie. :)

dementedchris said...

When is it coming out? I really enjoyed this one -- couldn't put it down! I felt that the subject was well handled and it didn't do too much. It could have easily gone the melodramatic route given the topic but it didn't.

nib said...

Finally saw the movie. Easily Oscar-grade :)

There's no way you can bash the story and not sound like a hopeless snob. It's endearing on many levels, and it deserves to be celebrated, shared and adored.

dementedchris said...

I didn't know it was already being shown! Hahaha. I'd love to see it and find out which elements were translated and which weren't.