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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

 Book Cover

Movie Poster

Details about the book:
Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Publishers: Penguin
No. of Pages: 522

 The first thing that came to my mind the moment I began reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett was her vernacular. Kathryn Stockett is what you will term 'white', for lack of a better word. But it's amazing how she manages to fit into the day-to-day vernacular of a 'colored' woman. Her language is free-flowing, easy and natural, and no where in the book does it feel like she is making an effort or any of it is made up. Full points to her for that.

 The story is told from the point of view of three main female characters - Aibileen, the motherly, loving, intelligent colored maid, who works as a nanny and maid; Minnie, who is a sassy, sharp-tongued maid, but clearly one of the best cooks the white ladies have ever had; Miss Skeeter, a young white female who has recently returned from college, only to find that her beloved Constantine, the colored maid who raised her and took on the figure of a real mother for her, has suddenly disappeared, and who now has the passion to share her thoughts on what she feels is needed today to make this world a better place, and who clearly does not believe in racial discrimination and wants to do something to bring an end to it.

 The Help is set in the 70s, in Jackson, Mississippi, a time when apartheid was rampant, especially in the areas mentioned in the book, and the discrimination between colored and white people was openly practised.

The story:
 Aibileen is a mother-figure, a colored woman who has spent her life, from the time she was a pre-teen, in the house of 'white' people raising their babies - 17 to be precise. And for each of the babies she has raised, she has a special place in her heart. Some have turned out to be just the way she hoped, the babies she once held in her arms have turned out to be amazing as human beings, while a few have learnt the ways of their parents and grown up to discriminate the very race that brought them up with so much love and care. Aibileen has recently lost a grown-up son, and she confesses that something inside her has now changed. Her son, educated and intelligent, was writing a book on being a black in America in the 70s, but being colored meant he could not get a decent job, and he was forced to work as a cargo man, hauling heavy stuff. It was on one such night that he got crushed and his white employer put him in a truck and once outside the colored hospital, rolled off his body and drove off. Aibileen's son died, taking away something from his mamma's life forever. As Aibileen begins her new job looking after Mae Mobley, the white baby of Miss Elizabeth Leefolt, we are taken into the home of the whites, to see the discrimination that is seeped in society and its culture.

 The same maid who is deemed fit to raise a white infant and take care of her all needs is not seen fit to use a bathroom that white guests may use. A colored maid cannot sit at the same table to eat, she is not allowed to speak to a white person unless a white person talks to her, and even while handing out a coffee cup, a colored maid is expected to first place the cup on the table, so that the white person will not come into contact with the colored skin, even by accident.

 Minnie is Aibileen's best friend, despite their age gap. A tough, colored woman, raising her brood of kids, living with a husband who is drunk and beats her up regularly, the pressures of providing for her children falls mainly on her. This is not easy, especially for Minnie, as she is notorious for having a sharp-tongue and a sassy attitude, one that lands her in trouble often. She does not hide her contempt for the way the whites treat the coloreds, and she is not afraid to speak her mind, many times at the cost of her job even.

 Skeeter is a white who is now feeling alien in her own white world. She has recently returned to her family's plantation and mansion after completing college. While her friends busy themselves with clothes, shoes, bridge parties and gossip, all the while mistreating or ignoring the colored people around them, Skeeter finds it increasingly difficult to abide by these so-called 'white' rules of etiquette. She is appalled at the way the colored are being humiliated, and she finds many loopholes in a society that otherwise calls itself 'perfect' and 'classy.' Determined to become a journalist, Skeeter lands herself a job as a 'housekeeping advice columnist', and while she has no idea of anything related to housework, she resolves to find a house help who can help her with her own column. It is in this capacity that she gets to chat with Aibileen, her best friend Elizabeth's colored help.

 As the story unfolds,
a strange friendship begins to form between Skeeter and Aibileen. Not a friendship in the beginning, it is more of a relationship that sees both women trying to understand the world of the other. While Skeeter wants to overcome the racial boundaries and tries to be friends with Aibileen and try to understand what she must be going through with so much discrimination and ill-treatment each day, Aibileen wants to figure out how a white woman suddenly is trying to reach out to her, trying to be friends, asking after her life and her feelings!

 As Skeeter begins to see more of Aibileen, she enters a circle that was till now invisible to her. While interacting with her best friends Elizabeth and Hilly, she begins noticing their attitude towards their maids, and the way they treat them. She also remembers her own upbringing at the hands of her colored maid, Constantine, and realises that Constantine must have faced many such humiliations too, even though she never complained. When Skeeter sends a job request to a publishing house editor, she is asked to write something fruitful, something that is different, something that catches the pulse of the society, something that talks about a 'change.' Interacting with Aibileen and seeing the attitudes of her friends, Skeeter realises soon what she is going to talk about.

 What begins as a relationship between Skeeter and Aibileen as the former starts to write about her life and experiences, soon grows into a bond that both begin to cherish, and very soon, Minnie also joins the two, sharing her own experiences, and the trio form an unlikely bond, an unlikely friendship.

 With racial discrimination growing and colored facing inhuman treatment at the hands of the whites, discontent is everywhere, and very soon, many colored women join Skeeter in the secret mission of writing about their lives and experiences.

 When the book comes out, the entire white society is shaken up, and its effects are felt everywhere. At the time when Martin Luther King and apartheid were a burning truth in society, the topics that Skeeter, Aibileen and Minnie deal in are sure to come with their own burning results - and they do. 

 What I loved about the novel is Stockett's portrayal of the characters. While Aibileen, Minnie and Skeeter are clearly the protagonists, the antagonist in the story, Hilly Holbrook, is a character who is drawn to the last bit of detail. She is clearly meant to be hated, and Stockett manages to get just that out of her readers. By the end of the novel, I was cheering for Hilly's problems and humiliations - clearly doing exactly what the author intended me to do. The other character who is extremely adorable even in her quirky ways, is Celia Foote, the 'yellow-haired' bimbo, who is termed as 'white trash' by the society ladies and is made into a social outcast, even despite her many attempts to gel into society and be a part of the Jackson elites. While others derogate Celia for her 'vulgar' ways, we get to see her attitude towards her 'help', whom not only does she treat as an equal, but whose maid, Minnie, is surprised at Miss Celia's attitude, as no white lady ever treats a 'colored' maid this well.  Another character who ends up being likeable is Skeeter's mother, who is constantly trying to teach her daughter to behave lady-like, constantly nagging and telling her to wear this, do this, do that, and constantly manages to irritate Skeeter. The next character is Elizabeth Leefolt, a white who is not as rich as the society ladies of her times, but who is doing all she can to make it up. She is in awe of Hilly, her best friend, and ends up doing things the way Hilly says or wants. When faced with a tricky situation, she goes by what Hilly tells her to do, not by her own instinct. We also see her complete dependence on her 'colored' maid Aibileen, who she leaves to take charge of her infant entirely, but for whom she gets a separate toilet made out in the garage, just because Hilly didn't approve of the colored maid and the guests using the same toilet.

 The book is a MUST-READ for anyone who would like to read a narration that is set in an important historical era, an issue that stirred up the world and that was one of the biggest causes of the past, and sometimes, even today. Though it is a work of fiction, the author has borrowed instances from many real-life events. At the end of the book, she gives us an insight into her own life, how she and her siblings were brought up by a colored help, and how she never thanked her for it. She says she too had behaved like many of these white women in her own life as a child, not giving much thought to her colored help, and is now truly ashamed of her thoughtlessness. The book will make many of us take another look at the way we treat our helps, at the way we treat those in society who are at lower rungs, and many times, treated poorly because of that.

 Kathryn Stockett has given us a winner. Of course the movie received many international awards and nominations, but the book is any day much much more and much more detailed. A movie can never have the time and the logistics to completely capture the book's every detail, and it is because of this that I would recommend that you definitely read the book, even though you may have seen the movie.

I will give the book 5 HEARTS: AWESOME

- Debolina Raja Gupta