Book Club Reads: The Help

For the month of June, the Book Club decided to set up a potential “Ladies’ Movie Night” in the near future, and read “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett. (Due to be released as a movie in August.) And, as we enter that season of beach reads – books we read to transport us to another place and time, forget our surroundings and breathe in time with the characters – there could not have been a better pick.

Stockett’s storytelling takes us back to the early 1960’s, when civil rights was slowly, quietly organizing, separate-but-equal was an acceptable standard throughout much of the South, and three characters caught up in the lore and tradition of Southern roles for women are eager to change their destinies

A daughter of privilege, a mother channeling the love for her lost son into her young white charges, and a woman keeping her family together form the facets of this engrossing story.

The book opens with Aibileen, a maid trying to heal after losing her grown son in what was likely a racially-charged killing. Aibileen’s specialty is helping with babies, and finding an unloved daughter to give her love to, and help them both in the end find happiness.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is one of the best cooks in Jackson. But with her sass, keeping a job isn’t easy for Minny. She’s got a house full of kids, a husband who sometimes hits her, and the need to bring in money, which lands her a mysterious job that holds secrets of its own.

Skeeter, a recent college graduate, is a disappointment to her parents for returning home without the requisite “MRS” degree. Without a wedding to plan, she’s stuck in her parents’ home, fielding questions from her dying mother and keeping up with her other friends who are married and starting their own families. Knowing that she’s not ready for marriage, and not satisfied with being a socialite, Skeeter strikes out to find a new path for herself, leading her to the local newspaper.

Three very different motivations – teach a white child not to hate someone based on the color of their skin, find the job security to keep a family together, and follow a passion for writing – gel into the book’s point of conflict: a proposed book that would tell an honest story of what it’s like for a black person to work for a white person. None of the relationships are easy ones, especially as they spill over into other relationships.

Theirs is a world with very clearly-defined lines that are not to be crossed. Ideas of what makes a lady, and who helps make a lady, witnessed from both inside and outside the intimate circle that starts to look like a junior high clique after a while.

The author knows the territory well, having been born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, an English degree, and a New York-based career in magazine writing and marketing (sound familiar, Skeeter?). This is her first book, in fact, and one that’s informed by her own experiences growing up. The pacing moves in fits and starts, much like the writing process itself, with the story growing as the idea of the book itself takes off.

What I appreciated about this story was that it wasn’t a “statement” story. There’s no defining ah-hah moment where Skeeter suddenly understands the risk she’s taken, or Aibileen’s boss suddenly aware of what building a separate bathroom meant. The actions documented in this book did not shake the world – but it shook their worlds, enough to make a tangible difference for all of them. Thinking back to what I learned about the Civil Rights movement, it seems far more realistic that – in the midst of grand, public statements and gestures – a million small things happened at all levels to effect the change that ultimately came. In fact, the biggest lesson from this novel is perhaps to seek out those little changes that add up over time to a big change.

Will I see the movie? I’m not sure yet. It’s sometimes hard to see a movie made based on a book you’ve enjoyed just because the kind of storytelling that is required for a movie’s success is not always the same for a book’s success. What if a favorite scene is over-emphasized for the sake of drama? Or (horror of horrors) the ending is somehow changed? I hope not. And according to a friend of mine who saw a special screening, it was thoroughly enjoyable. Here’s hoping…

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