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Review: The Help

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel like I was one of the last people in the world to read this book. That’s what happens when the stack of “to read” books next to your bed barely even fits in your nightstand–which I bought specifically because it had a nice, sizeable book cubby in it. But I digress…

I’ve gotta say, Kathryn Stockett has some cojones. It’s not easy to write a book with multiple different voices and to make each voice distinct enough to be realistic and engaging. It’s also not easy to touch on the topic of race relations in Mississippi in the 1960s, complete with the use of local dialects, when you’re a white lady unknown in the world of fiction (The Help is, astonishingly, Stockett’s debut novel). Whether you think Stockett was successful in addressing the issue of race through her fictional characters or whether, like some critics, you think she came across as racist herself, you’ve got to give her credit for at least taking the risk to “go there.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about taking risks in writing. The old adage “write what you know” doesn’t always produce the most intriguing fiction. Stockett’s courage is probably the reason The Help broke out in the way it did. She drew on some of what she knew, from her childhood growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, where The Help takes place. But where her own experience fell short, she used imagination and a lot of research to fill in the gaps. The result is a rich, riveting story that weaves together the fictional stories of three women without apology.

There’s Skeeter, a recent, white college graduate who comes home from the intellectual challenges of academia to a mother more concerned with marriage proposals rather than Skeeter’s career prospects. There’s Aibileen, an older, black woman who works as a maid in the home of one of Skeeter’s friends and can’t help but notice the changes going on in her community with respect to race. And there’s Aibileen’s friend, Minny, another maid whose loose tongue and temper often get her in trouble. The three women’s lives come together due to a trait that all of them possess–restlessness. When Skeeter starts writing down the maids’ stories in the form of a book, they are eager to share their experiences, but terrified of what their employers and the community would do if they found out. They, like anyone who’s ever tried to advance progress, have to decide whether safety or conviction is more important.

I don’t want to  spoil anything, so I’ll stop there, but I certainly found The Help to be a fast read without being at all fluffy–which is a rare and welcome combination in a novel. There are only two reasons I didn’t rate this book higher: (1) I found it a bit predictable, and (2) there was one chapter near the end where Stockett broke from first-person narrative and moved into an omniscient narrator’s voice. I found that chapter to be jarring, when contrasted with the strong, personal voices in the rest of the book. Overall, though, I’d recommend it as a worthwhile read that is sure to give you something to talk about, whether you’re one of Stockett’s fans or one of her critics.

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