Monday, August 24, 2009

The Help

The Help
Kathryn Stockett

I read lots of books but rarely review them as most as fine but ordinary; this is an exception.

I bought it simply because I saw it in Waterstones just after I had heard an excerpt from it on Pick of the Week on Radio 4. I think it was Woman's Hour Book of the Month or something.

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962 it relates the Civil Rights movement from an unusual angle. It has three different narrators: Miss Skeeter, the young white woman raised by a beloved black maid; Aibileen, who's tending her seventeenth white child; and Minny, maid with attitude.

Skeeter wants to be a writer and finds her first employment writing a household advice column for the local newspaper. As she knows nothing at all about housekeeping she gets her answers from Aibileen, who is maid to one of her friends.

As the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Skeeter persuades Aibileen to let her write her story, about what it's like to tend white folks. A publisher in New York expresses an interest but says it needs to be an anthology of stories from many maids. At first, for fear of reprisal, in spite of promises of anonymity and confidentiality, none of the other maids will co-operate. It takes a tragedy to get them involved, and finally the book with its tales of good and bad treatment is ready, and sent off to the prospective publisher. And they all sit back and wait for the outcome.

The characters are largely wonderfully drawn and sympathetic although one of the main white women. Miss Hilly, has absolutely nothing in her favour. Most of the others, although bullied by Miss Hilly, retain a measure of decency.

I grew up in the sixties and although I heard about race riots and segregated buses it didn't mean a lot to me. I'm afraid I was more interested in the Beatles and whether I'd get into grammar school so this book was something of a revelation. I am appalled, astounded, that, in my lifetime - and the not-too-distant past - racial segregation was regulated by law. And what laws they had.

But then I remember that in some places in America they still have the death penalty - and I am angry that America dares to criticise the Scottish minister for releasing, on compassionate grounds, the Libyan bomber. (Okay, I know that isn't a strictly logical chain of thought but i don't work on logic; I operate on feelings.) But I'm being distracted.

This is a wonderful book. An easy read and very satisfying. My only advice is not to read the final page just before you plan to go to sleep: I was so cross it kept me awake.


Leslie: said...

Sounds like a good read. Although I'm only a few miles from the border to the USA and remember what was going on in the 60's and beyond, racial conflict never touched us here - until reacently when the Chinese took over a whole city (Richmond).

CherryPie said...

It sound like I would love the book, I must add it to my list of to read :-)

Puss-in-Boots said...

I had a flaming row with my ex-father-in-law because when watching the riots at Kent State on TV news back in the 60s over segregation, he was making some dreadfully derogatory and racist comments. That is one thing I cannot and will not tolerate. Needless to say, we did not have a very good relationship from that day on and my poor ex was stuck in the middle.

It sounds a very interesting book and I'll have a look for it in the library.

Good review, too, Liz.

jay said...

Well, I did think I might give that one a try till you said the last page made you cross! I hate books that do that.

It sounds like a very thought-provoking book though. Maybe I will try it after all. Sometime.

James Higham said...

I should imagine you're spending most of the time writing.

Liz said...

Do read it, leslie, cherrypie, puss - and jay! It only makes me mad because of what happens not because it's a badly-written ending or a disappointing one.

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