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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Help by Kathryn Stockett (FP: 2009)

Jackson, Mississippi – 1962. ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (played by Emma Stone in the 2011 movie adaptation) is back home from college and is very confused. Her favourite maid, who helped bring her up and who became a friend has gone, vanished from her family home, and no one will tell her what happened. Increasingly at a loose end and looking for something to do – anything other than husband hunt as her mother suggests – she gets a job in the local paper writing a home help column. Unfortunately Skeeter knows practically nothing about cooking, cleaning or any other domestic chore. Desperate to fulfil her first assignment she turns to her school friend’s maid Aibileen (played by Viola Davis) to help. Reluctant at first Aibileen starts to find that her time with Skeeter starts to become more than another chore. Slowly the two women from radically different backgrounds become friends. So when old school friend Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) devises a ‘health’ campaign to prevent the Help using the same bathrooms as their white employers it’s more than just something to disagree upon – it’s personal. But what can Skeeter do to combat her socially powerful friend? Looking for a way to undermine what she sees as both hypocritical and deeply wrong Skeeter decides to write a book from the Helps point of view – both the good and bad about black servants bringing up white children in a deeply divided and segregated society. But even Skeeter has no idea just how powerful and dangerous her book will be and just how much it will change everyone involved in the project and everyone in Jackson who reads it.

This was a totally random purchase some years ago in my local supermarket. I still don’t know exactly why I bought it (not having seen the movie) except that it was demonstratively different and most definitely not my usual read. So it languished in one of my book piles until I decided to read 10 books made into movies. I’m glad I did. It was, at least to begin with, a slow read. I’m not exactly familiar with the period or the place – only having a vague notion of life in those times and in the South picked up from the odd movie or in passing from a documentary or book – so I found myself concentrating more than normal on everything that was going on. Once I had enough of the background under my belt and felt safe enough to ‘walk around Jackson’ on my own things got a bit faster and the pages flew by. This was an excellent, if at times uncomfortable, read full of interesting (and occasionally deeply annoying) characters. I think, from the blurb at the back of the book, that Skeeter was largely based on the author but that was no bad thing for a first novel. The sense of place is really palpable and the different voices throughout the book help to give some very different perspectives on life in early 60’s Mississippi. Between the drama, and there’s plenty of that, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments and I found myself chuckling through a fair bit of it. But it had a strong central message too – about common humanity and friendship across the race barrier. I liked young Skeeter a lot and I think you will too. Highly recommended.    

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