Moving back to 1962

I just finished The Help. It was another book that kept me engrossed and reading between assignments and classes. I only picked it up because of the Oscar nomination, but I am so glad I did. I rather like this year’s Oscar collection. All the movies made it to my must-watch list. This one, however, made it to my read-it-first list(unlike Moneyball)

The book chronicles the story of three women in 1962. One white and two coloured who come together to write a book about how coloured help are treated by their white mistresses. For me, it’s the first book since Gone With the Wind that has dealt with the issue from an angle that is not just coloured. I’ve read a number of books by African-American writers and loved them but this one struck a chord for some reason.

The fact that I am taking a Gender class this term added another dimension to the book. What I would have read as a tale of opression and caste/colour tensions, I was now looking at from a third angle as well. The gender angle is played well by the author herself but I was observing it more closely.

Stockett has a personal note at the end, which among other things, says, ‘There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dishonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.’ This note captured the book and explains, most succinctly, why it works as well as it does.

 

The book worked for me because aside from dealing with a period and setting in American history I love reading about, it also captured certain employer-employee relationships that are fairly universal. The author seems to be telling a tale she knows and loves. I loved that the book was told in three distinct voices that never blurred into each other. The author didn’t compromise on language or style to make it happen and I appreciate it. Abileen, Minny and Skeeter are memorable women for various reasons, none of which involve their circumstances.

The book has it’s flaws, however, it never really tells us what the stories behind these women are. Also, and this is a perspective I gained thanks to Gender class, it does not really address the problem. Yes, there are coloured maids suffering in Jackson, Missisippi and a white woman decides to tell their story by writing about it in a book.  But then, the book is published anonymously with no real change to anything. Yes, happy ending happens, but I somehow felt a tiny bit disappointed that though Aibleen had a job that would let her write, it was only on the condition that no one would know it was here who was doing it. Little things like that, that I suppose also had to do with the conformation to history irked me.

For most part, however, reading The Help made me think Colin Firth got it right when he said, “When I’m really into a novel, I’m seeing the world differently during that time – not just for the hour or so in the day when I get to read. I’m actually walking around in a haze, spellbound by the book and looking at everything through a different prism.”

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