This is my review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
The underlying grimness of the story is offset by the continual bubbling wit and humour in adversity, and the sheer rage over injustice which "The Help" inspires, until you begin to wonder uneasily if you are not guilty of other indefensible prejudices yourself.
It is easy to see what has made this a bestseller. Written confidently, with a clear, sound structure and pace for a first novel, "The Help" is a page-turner with its skilful coverage of human resilience and the sowing of the seeds of rebellion as prejudice begins to crack in 1960s Mississippi, told through the viewpoint of two black maids and an idealistic but naive young white woman with ambitions to become a writer. Since Stockett was raised in this state, I have to assume that the speech patterns are authentic, and they add to the evocation of life in the South, and the vigour and humour of the tale.
Many of the characters are stereotypes – the ghastly, officious white Hilly, with the power to ostracise any "friend" who dares to question her views, and to destroy the livelihoods of black servants (not merely her own!) who displease her;the saintly, shrewd yet downtrodden black maid Aibileen; the voluptuous Miss Celia, unable to comprehend that, obeying Hilly's orders, the other wives shun her as trailer trash.
Some of the more dramatic scenes are a little clunky, but grimness and injustice are leavened with the continual comedy and irony in the language and sequence of incidents – ludicrous scenes such as Minnie's attempts to hoover clean a dusty old stuffed bear, some old family trophy. The sense of fear over the risk of a black maid being seen "in the wrong place" without her uniform, of a white person caught consorting with blacks socially, not to mention any attempts at free expression of opinion, is very palpable, and justified by the occasional examples of harsh and unjust punishment. I thought at times that this book would be soft-centred, and lapse into a corny romance for at least one character, but this is not the case.
"The Help" succeeds in reminding or informing a wide range of readers of the claustrophobic convention and bigotry of the confederate states, which trapped both blacks and whites for generations – obviously, the former suffered more serious effects – the daily humiliation, insult of being treated as invisible or unclean, and the risk of being falsely accused sacked and blacklisted, or worse for even a whiff of defiance.
If you can remember the '60s, it is chastening to realise that so much inequality and exploitation still operated unchecked, and interesting to see events which the characters have yet to realise are the dawning of a social revolution : Martin Luther King's great speech, the outbreak of the Vietnam war, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones hitting the airwaves, and the mass production of the miniskirt.
This is a good choice for a book group since it is likely to trigger a lively discussion. Was Miss Skeeter right to produce as she did a set of firsthand accounts of the lives of black maids in Jackson? Who really gained and lost from this subversive act, and how? How could the sharp-tongued Minnie accept for so long being beaten by her husband?