About Me

My photo
I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Help

Kathryn Stockett's The Help is about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960's gaining the courage to tell the truth about their circumstances, though they risk their jobs and even their lives in doing so. It's a fun, lively, and thought provoking book. Stockett has a great sense of drama and an amazing ear for dialect.

There are several heroes, but the central character is Aibileen, a middle-aged maid who eventually gets the others involved. Aibileen is particularly heroic because she is the first woman willing to tell her story to Skeeter, a young white reporter who wants to write about more important things than how to clean things. Together, and eventually with others they enlist, they set to writing a book about the experiences of black maids in a nameless town in Mississippi. In the process, Aibileen discovers that she herself has a talent for writing as well as persuasion. In order to get her friend Minny to join the effort, she simply acknowledge's that Minny is right:"We don't want a change nothing around here." As a result, Minny starts thinking about the word "Truth." "It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that's been burning up all my life."

Truth is as important to Skeeter as it is to the maids. Constantine, her own maid when she was growing up, taught her the importance of it. Tall and gangly, Skeeter always felt unattractive, an impression that her mother encouraged, but Constantine taught her to say, "Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?"

"Them fools" includes much of society at that time in the South. Skeeter finds a book of Jim Crow laws, which she realizes defy logic. One involves segregating blind people who can't even see color: "The Board shall maintain a separate building on separate grounds for the instruction of all blind persons of the colored race." The truly blind are those who see color, and one of Skeeter's best friends, Hilly Holbrook, seems to be the worst of them. Though she is horrified by having to use a toilet that a black person might have used, she somehow doesn't think she is a racist. "'It's true. There are some racists in this town,' Miss Leefolt say. Miss Hilly nod her head, 'Oh, they're out there.'" Probably the most obvious indication of Hilly's blindness is her desire to help "poor starving children in Africa," but her total disregard for black people in her own neighborhood.

Though the book is a clear indictment of the racist South, Stockett carefully avoids painting Hilly or any of the others as monsters of evil. Aibeleen, for instance, can't help but admire Hilly's love for her children: "One thing I got to say about Miss Hilly, she love her children. About every five minutes, she kiss little William on the head. Or she ask Heather, is she having fun? Or come here and give Mama a hug. Always telling her she the most beautiful girl in the world. And Heather love her mama too. She look at Miss Hilly like she looking up at the Statue a Liberty. That kind a love always make me want a cry. Even when it going to Miss Hilly. Cause it makes me think about Treelore, how much he love me. I appreciate seeing a child adoring they mama."

The book also shows the passive, cowardly type of Southerner in the form of Stuart, who wonders why Skeeter wants to "stir up trouble." My guess is that there were as many Stuarts in Jackson as there were Hillys, though that may be giving too much credit to human nature. The only character who doesn't "see the lines" between the two races or even between the classes is Celia. She wants to sit down in the kitchen with Minny over coffee, but be one of Hilly's high society friends. You can't help but love Celia, but even she isn't idealized. Her life is a train wreck in itself, and she desperately needs someone like Minny.

Though the book is primarily about racism, it's almost as much about mothers and daughters--about Constantine and her daughter, Elizabeth and Mae Mobley, and Charlotte and Skeeter. All of these mothers at one point or another give in to society's expectations rather than loving their daughters. Of course the book is as much about Constantine and Skeeter and Aibileen and Mae Mobley--relationships where the black maid truly mothers the child.

The Help has some strong language, sometimes that is central enough that you can't pass over it and get the plot. The situation involving "the terrible awful" is one case in point. I won't be a spoiler, but it is aptly named. I never quite recovered from reading this part of the book. I'm trying to decide whether I'm a prude or not. One of my best friends is a seventh grade math teacher who once put up a poster of a guy picking his nose on the door to his room. I feel sure that he would love this part of the book. I'm just saying it isn't for everyone.

No comments: