My friend Sandra came over to visit two weeks ago and handed me this book, The Help by Kathyrn Stockett. She had recently read it for her book club and loved it. I'd heard about the book but somehow hadn't felt compelled to get a copy myself. It did turn out to be very good. However, I thought it was also flawed.
The Help is set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. A young white woman, Skeeter, decides to write a book about the working lives of domestic helpers. Two African-American maids, Aibileen and Minny agree to participate in the risky project. The story is told from the points of view of the three women. Their various accounts are touching, harrowing and also funny. Stockett actually drew on her own experiences growing up in Jacksonville with an African-American maid at home.
"I come home that morning, after I been fired, and stood outside my house with my new work shoes on. The shoes my mama paid a month's worth a light bill for. I guess that's when I understood what shame was and the color of it too. Shame ain't black, like dirt, like I always thought it was. Shame be the color of a new white uniform your mother ironed all night to pay for, white without a smudge or a speck a work-dirt on it."
The book was very alive because of the women's voices, particularly those of Aibileen and Minny, whose colloquial language really jumped from the pages. It almost felt like I was watching a film rather than reading a book. The characters were wonderful and throughout the novel, I was cheering for them on their difficult journey to get the book written and published.
I have only a few gripes about the book. One, throughout the last third of it, Stockett kept scattering different cultural references, mentioning for example, the first time Skeeter hears Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones on the radio or when one of the women uses Shake n' Bake. I thought it was quite forced and a bit annoying. I realise that what she was trying to do was to signify the coming of change in America but I felt these references were not necessary and were actually a distraction. To top it off, she then informs readers in her afterword that the Bob Dylan song was in reality only released in 1964 and Shake n' Bake hit the shelves in 1965. So what was the point of mentioning such trivial things at all?
Secondly, what was the deal with that naked man? About halfway through the book, some strange white naked guy harasses Minny and her employer at home. They violently defend themselves and send him back into the woods but nothing is ever said about him again. So is that a normal occurrence in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi? I thought that was a weird scene and a strange way to show the strength of those women.
Apart from my gripes above, I also felt that the book could have been shorter. There were quite a few unnecessary scenes and repetitive stories. These flaws however are minor and could have been corrected by a thorough editor. In spite of this, I still think The Help is a great read. It's riveting and compulsively readable. I also have to admit that for a first time author, it's a wonderful debut and Stockett should be proud. She's definitely a writer we should keep our eye on in the future. I do hope she gets a better editor for her next book though.