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The Help

1 rating: 5.0
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Starred Review. Four peerless actors render an array of sharply defined black and white characters in the nascent years of the civil rights movement. They each handle a variety of Southern accents with aplomb and draw out the daily humiliation and pain … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Berkley Trade
1 review about The Help

Nanny Diaries

  • Aug 10, 2011
Anyone who is a parent to grown or even teenage child knows the pain inflicted when that burgeoning adult disagrees, chastises or looks down upon this his/her first and ultimate authority figure. Imagine the anguish caused by the child who after automatically accepting his/her family black housekeeper as a first mother comes to be taught by society that this warm and caring woman's inferiority is such that she cannot even use the same toilet facility. A knife of sadness so deep pierces the hearts of these surrogate mothers when the unconditional love of a child becomes segregated behind the bigoted traditions of an unenlightened community.

Such is the emotional stuff of Kathyrn Stockett's novel "The Help," a tale of Jackson, Mississippi in the Civil Rights era of the early 60s told from the perspective of three members of its fractured social framework. The story pivots around the restless aspirations of Skeeter, a recent graduate from Ole Miss whose desire to be a scintillating Southern writer that would diminish even the glorious Faulkner and Welty is quickly extinguished by her mother's desire for her to settle down and marry before anyone worth knowing deems her a gawky spinster with untamable hair. When the family's longtime maid, Constantine leaves without saying goodbye to the girl she raised from a baby, Skeeter suddenly becomes aware that sadness can reach depths that can carve out a piece of her soul. Against the dark backdrop of sit-ins, freedom rides and Southern resistance, she begins to wonder how such circumstances wound the ever-smiling black servants without whom white households would not run and decides to focus her attention on crafting a book that will reveal the thoughts of these seemingly tireless yet resilient women.

She enlists the "help" of the strong and sensible Aibileen with a writer's aspiration of her own and the wildly outspoken Minny, whose big mouth and anger over unjust situations loses her more jobs than can be had in such a small city where propriety and reputation count for so much. Add to this mixture of historical events and the emotional experiences of the three women the activities of the local Junior League headed by the extremely dislikable Hilly Holbrook who has decided that the Jim Crow laws reflect her inner mantra prompting her civic duty to include ensuring the installment of separate bathroom facilities for any family employing black help.

Along with the well-developed empathy for all citizens infected by the rigidly defined pre-flower power milieu of the 60s, Stockett inoculates the reader with a jab of fun and madcap mayhem from the ominous virus of misfortune that could, at any time, overtake these women and their clandestine project and cast them into a tailspin of misery that could include beatings, imprisonment and death. Most entertaining is the interchange between the sassy Minny and her employer, the ditzy Marilyn Monroe stereotype, Ceclia Foote. Stockett revels in her ability to create poignant moments and goes out of her way to pull out all the stops, allowing her reader to breathe in the heavy Southern air, feel its stifling humidity and become familiar with the cozy flamboyance of each voice.

The author, hailing from Jackson, herself, brings a great deal of verisimilitude to her tale, so much so that this reviewer wonders what her fellow Jacksonians think about this expose as it most definitely is written as not only a time capsule but a tribute to the black woman who raised her and a finger-shaking at the ignorance of the governing community groups prevalent at that time that still may exist today. Surely, as such conditions were alive and well only a generation ago, the history of such systemic bigotry still extends somewhat and sadly into present sensibilities. In fact, a lawsuit currently exists between the author and her brother's 60-year-old maid/nanny who feels "humiliated" that Stockett used her as the model for the book's Aibileen claiming embarrassment at the character's use of patois and annoyance at the too many personal history similarities that seem more than just coincidental.

Nevertheless, nothing can detract from "The Help"'s obvious appeal. The individual voices of each of the main characters remain entertaining throughout while providing an interesting depiction of the interplay between whites and blacks in South during the Civil Rights period. Stockett's portrayal of Skeeter's relationship with her mother, her dealing with both her parents' expectations and her desire for freedom in individualistic expression remarkably exemplifies from the Southern vantage point the universal theme of a young woman yearning for more than just marriage and a home that buttressed the Women's Liberation Movement of the seventies.

Bottom line? "The Help" provides page-turning entertainment that showcases the interplay between white and black citizens of Jackson, Mississippi during the early 60s. Readers cannot fail to fall in love with the steadfast, loving Aibileen and the rebellious, outspoken Minny while despising the pompously ridiculous Hilly and her kowtowing minions. While the depiction of Skeeter's coming-of-age may, at times, seem a bit trite, it, nevertheless, rings true with episodes of disappointing dates, pathetic future in-laws and full-blown expectations so gilded with fairytale happy-ever-afters that the almost saccharine acceptance of this character by the black community applauding her work on the interviews seems fitting. Readers old and young will laugh and cry from the first page to the last, wishing that the story will go on well past the final paragraph. Highly Recommended.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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