05/06/2012

The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)

I had never heard of Kathryn Stockett. This is her debut novel, and has been quite a success in the US, but it's not one I'd come across - and not a book I would have thought about reading. Then a friend read it and said it was wonderful, and left the book for me to read. It sat on my shelf for a few months - it's quite a big book (over 500 pages) and the subject matter - that of racial tensions in the 1960s - didn't much appeal to me.

Then, about five days ago, I decided to embark on reading 'The Help'. And within a chapter or two, I was hooked. It's a powerful and cleverly written book. The main protagonist - although we don't meet her immediately - is Skeeter, a young graduate returning to her home town in Mississippi in the early 1960s. She discovers that her beloved black maid/nanny Constantine has vanished - and nobody will tell her why, or where she has gone.

Skeeter is part of the bridge-playing socialite community in her town, but she begins to see flaws in her friends' attitudes; she isn't particularly interested in getting married, and gets bored with a life of parties and games. She wants to be a journalist, and takes on a weekly advice column for the local paper. She finds that she has to ask questions of one of her friends' maids, Aibileen, as she has no idea how to answer cleaning questions.

Aibileen - who is the other star of the book - loves the white children she has raised, and puts up with a great deal of racism from her employers. However, something changed inside her when her grown-up son was tragically killed, and after some reluctance, she agrees to collaborate with Skeeter on a book which - anonymously - reveals what really goes on in different households, from the perspectives of the maids.

Coming from a multi-cultural town in the UK, growing up with people of all colours of skin around me, in schools and on buses and so on - where skin colour was hardly more significant than hair colour - I was quite shocked to learn of the intense racism that was evidently still strong in the Southern states of the US, as recently as the 1960s. This isn't just about the evils of organised racism, but the ingrained attitudes of many young women who had themselves been raised by black nannies, and probably loved them very much - but grew up to be convinced that they should be segregated, not eating at the same tables, not even using the same toilets.

I did feel that perhaps the dangers of what these maids did was a little underplayed. I don't like violence or horror, and am glad that the scenes of brutality that were mentioned did not take place 'on stage', as it were. Yet at the same time, it felt a bit too glossed over. It felt almost as if everyone were making a huge deal over something which didn't actually affect too many of them.

Indeed, I expect there are anachronisms and inaccuracies as various reviewers have pointed out; nevertheless, in my view Kathryn Stockett does extremely well in the three quite distinct voices (Skeeter, Aibileen, and a much more outspoken maid called Minny) and brings together what turns out to be a very thought-provoking book.

It still seems astonishing to me that there was legalised racial segregation as recently as fifty years ago, in parts of America... I grew up knowing about apartheid in South Africa, but it seems to have been a well-kept secret that something very similar was going on the Southern US only a decade or two earlier. Even if there are inaccuracies, the big picture is now firmly embedded in my mind; once again, fiction has made me aware at a deep level of something I had only vaguely grasped previously.

'The Help' is not a difficult read, and is definitely recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 5th June 2012

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