A couple of years ago, I did something I seldom do: I watched the film before I read the book. The film was The Help, based on the book of the same title by Kathryn Stockett, and I throroughly enjoyed it. I have only just, finally, read the book, and adored it. I have also, since, re-watched the film and confess that, after experiencing Stockett’s linguistic mastery, her depth of character, the extent of her plot, and her sensitivity to the nuances of the era, I was not quite as enamoured by the cinematic portrayal upon re-viewing it. There was so much missing – lacking – that a mere two hours just cannot capture.
The Help is set in Jackson, Mississipi, in the 1960s, during the height of racial segregation, and offers an exploration of the relationship between white middle-class women and the black women who worked for them, their domestic help. The story is told from the points of view of three women: Aibeleen, Skeeter, and Minnie.
Skeeter is an idealistic, young, middle-class white woman, who dreams of becoming a writer. She decides to work on a book of interviews with domestic workers, allowing them to tell their stories – anonymously and honestly, the good and the bad – about what it’s like to be a maid in Mississippi. Aibeleen is a black maid, busy raising her 17th white child, who decides to help Skeeter to write her book. Minnie, Aibleen’s hot-headed friend who can’t keep a job for her “sass-mouthing”, in spite of having many mouths to feed at home. The story is about how these three women bring the book to life, their trials and triumphs, all while civil rights struggles are going on around them.
You may read as many unfavourable as favourable reviews of The Help, and I’d like to urge you to make your own decision. Stockett has based her debut novel on her personal, and her family’s, experiences with their own domestic help, and also on the events and racial tensions of the time. She weaves together this history with her own ideals and creativity to create a beautiful, exquisitely told story that brought tears to my eyes at times, and joyous laughter at others.
One thing that has received some criticism (for being racist) is how Stockett writes the vernacular of her black characters. For me, however, especially as a Linguistics major, I thought she provided a very clever phonetic portrayal of the idiosyncracies of this population. Aibeleen and Minnie, for instance, might say how they “gone go” somewhere or “gone do” something, rather than “going to go” or “going to do.” As you read these little language nuances, you cannot help but hear their accents in your head as you read their narrative. There is immense skill in writing a coherent story that accurately captures, and reads as the vernacular being spoken, and this was my favourite aspect of the book.
Another criticism has been for Stockett’s portrayal of the middle-class white women as the villains in this tale. Unfortunately, however, the truth is that the behaviour of these women towards their maids was not ideal. It was the way things were done…the norm, and the reason things have changed. These were relationships of inequality, and similar relationships have been witnessed in all parts of the globe for centuries. Without meaning to, by just doing things how they were done, many of these women, and their husbands, were in the wrong from a human rights point of view.
Stockett’s characters were delightfully drawn. The three main characters, as well as the numerous supporting ones, all had depth, and the good and the bad of their own stories were told, a reflection of the book being written within this book. It was important that Stockett’s characters were three-dimensional, as only then could she explore and portray the complexities and intricacies of their relationships with each other, and then, to go one step further, how these fit into the larger scale laws and social movements of the time. I had complete empathy for the main characters – and for Celia Foote, the housewife who finally takes on Minnie, and who, although white, is also an outsider. I was drawn into their lives, and really struggled to say goodbye when the book came to a close. They were believable, tangible, interesting, and endearing.
For me, this is a book worth reading. The Help touches on some vitally important social issues, and encourages the reader to think about where they stand, but in a way that is subtle, gentle and encouraging. It is a book that reminds us to think about how we, ourselves, behave towards others, and is ultimately about the fact that we are all just people, trying to make it through this rollercoaster called life. We are all victims of society, and we all have the potential to change, no matter what our circumstances, but it takes courage to do so. This is a wonderfully written story of women, and their struggles, their relationships, their defeat, and their hope. What I will recommend, though, is read the book. If you skip to the movie, you will witness a shallow, Hollywood retelling of a story that is deserving of the time and energy to pore through and savour every word.