Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most exhilirating books I've ever read!

The NPR blurb on the cover compares it to "To Kill a Mockingbird", and even the book itself mentions it by name several times throughout, so you already know where this one is reaching. These, are not the same books, of course, and although both are about the unjust, and oftentimes violent line drawn between whites and blacks in the Old South, neither of them will ever provide any new information to the African Americans who suffered from slavery to Jim Crow, but they will always be an eye opener to everyone else. If the initial message of "To Kill a Mockingbird" has long since been taken for granted by scores of teenagers and college students who enjoy it as required reading, sitting safe within the confines of "this is a time no longer with us", "The Help" certainly has a chance to grab them by the wrist and pull them off the beach chair they're lounging in. It is one of those books that screams "wake up call", and successfully does so without falling into the trap of gratuitous violence, cartoonish stereotypes, and race-baiting.

The novel centers on the lives of three women in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi, two Housekeepers-Aibilene and Minny, and on Skeeter Phelan, the gangly socialite, fresh from college and itching to make her mark on the literary world rather than submit to her mother's dreams of husband hunting and babies. Aibilene and Minny are written as three dimensional women, they are tired, and not always long suffering, working for white families their entire lives and about at the breaking point with the cold dismissal, and sometimes outright cruelty they've endured from employers.

Aibilene's specialty is raising white children, babies she calls her own, babies that invariably break her heart when they realize and accept the line between white and black, but she can never stop herself from loving them.

Minny is a vibrant, fierce woman, she has noisy children and an abusive alcoholic husband waiting for her at home, and a chronic inability to keep her temper when aggravated by any one of the white employers she's been fired from.

Aibilene and Minny have a mutual enemy, Skeeter Phelan's best friend, an obsessively controlling tyrant named Hilly Holbrook.

The entire novel is a galaxy circling Hilly Holbrook, a woman so controlling, racist, and vile that the fact she's a genuinely loving, and nurturing mother is obscenely disarming. Hilly is the social leader, she runs card clubs, ladies clubs, and collects money for starving children in Africa while gleefully tormenting the lives of the "nigra maids" of Jackson, Mississippi. She is so obviously brutal, but yet, one recognizes in her so clearly the voice, and person of that ONE member of every group that everyone inexplicably tolerates.

Why do we put up with, and crave the approval of people like Hilly Holbrook? The novel's white lead, Skeeter Phelan is very, very slow to come to any realization of this question, so much so, that it does become frustating she would persist in calling this woman her best friend.

The backdrop weaves in references to Martin Luther King, The Freedom Riders, the Kennedy Administration, and throughout the entire story lies the ever present threat of what would happen to the three main characters should their ultimate collaboration on an explosive tell-all about white and black relations in Jackson, Mississippi become exposed.

You will find yourself worrying alongside these women, jumping when they do at suspicious knocks on the doors and cars in the driveway, laughing alongside them whenever the little things in life like baking a caramel cake or potty training a toddler go well, or even pumping your fist at times.

Highly engrossing, well written, fast paced and without even one page of lag, "The Help" is definately one of THE books of the year.

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