Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Help

This is probably the most hyped book (and movie) of the year. I was skeptical. In fact, I tossed the print version aside--it reminded me of my Grandmother and her bridge club grumbling about "how hard it is to find a really good colored girl these days". Ick. But friends kept reading it and raving about it. One told me the audio book was fabulous, so I got it. This time it "took."

First, let me get off my chest the numerous minor, yet still distracting, historical errors that the big-time New York editor did not correct:

  1. Pantyhose had been invented but had not yet taken then world by storm.
  2. Shake and Bake (as has been pointed out lots of places) was not yet on the market.
  3. The Price is Right wasn't on the air yet.
  4. Long-haired hippies, peace signs and draft dodgers were in the future. Just because the date has a 6 in it doesn't mean we were yet into what is known as "the Sixties." The Kennedy Administration was a much more Conservative era. Vietnam was just starting to gather in American soldiers, but in a trickle, not a flood.
  5. The mini skirt hit London just a year or so later than this story.

Those are picky, minor details that don't detract from the story but show how little people really know about an Era in history.

I can live with these. I can live with a maid in 1963 being angry at a father of any race, creed or color, for beating his son. Just do not tell me she wanted to tell the boy it was ok to be gay. We cannot right past wrongs by re-writing history. In 1963, there wasn't even the barest beginnings of a Gay Pride movement, except possibly in Greenwich Village or other very, very liberal enclaves. Stonewall had not even occurred. Although it's sad but true, in 1963 homosexuality was still treated as a mental illness and although most adults WERE aware of "people like that" and may even have personally turned a blind eye to it, no one was defending a kid for liking the same sex. That is just historical revisionism on part with George Orwell's 1984. No matter how awful, we need to accept that this is how it was then. Just like police dogs and fire hoses being turned on African Americans who wanted to vote or sit down to lunch. Just like the bricks and rocks thrown at the buses full of Freedom Riders. It's the way it was--don't lie. Don't write it like you want it to have been.

Now that I've got the sermon out of the way, let me address the book--or rather the hype of the book. This is a very, very powerful story, but it shocks me that people are still shocked by it! Did the whole world buy into the "happy mammy" stereotype? Is it a shock that in any situation there are good and bad people of any race or religion? Is it hard to believe that a white person would pay for a black maid's child to go to college or is it harder to accept that a black maid could love and miss the children she helped raise? Do people not realize that social security was overtly racist at it's inception by leaving out domestic workers or that minimum wage laws skirted the whole issue of domestic help and how they are paid? Do people not believe that while the Klan was overtly awful the "Miss Hilly's" of the world wrecked as much havoc just quietly and out of sight of the media? Is it really shocking to read that a man beat his wife or that a child was sent away due to the color of her skin? Can you really tell me in the 21st century that these things are shocking? If so that's an even more damning indictment of the teaching of history as "sound bytes" in our schools.

What makes me applaud this book till my arms ache is the strength of character it shows in both the maids themselves and in the very few whites who were willing to join their still-on-going struggle for equality in any way. The earnestness of Skeeter, the calm thoughtfulness of Abeline, the just-under-the-surface-anger of Minnie--all are to the breaking point when they decide to fight in the only way they can--on paper. Strength, character, TRUE Christian values all add up to a moral victory.

On the other side of the coin is Miss Hilly, the sorority girl who runs the Junior League and clings to the status quo with her finely manicured claws. Her victories are cheap and show her for the shallow insecure being she was bred to be. She is the victim of one of the crudest jokes in literature (which I won't spoil by revealing here) and also gets a telling down worthy of Julia Sugarbaker ("Designing Women") when Skeeter's dying mother takes a look at Hilly--for once not her perfectly dressed, made-up and coiffed self and says "No young husband wants to come home to that......." Touche! The iron fist in the velvet glove smites the wanna-be steel magnolia.

The growth of Skeeter, Abeline and Minnie is profound. The secrets that are confronted, the stories shared and the sisterhood that grows are inspiring and believable. That is what makes this book work--it is believable. You want to know women with this kind of moral courage. You want to find them today and get them on board with your own pet cause. You want to sit and have coffee and learn from them. Most of all you want to be like them.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett


AmieLou said...

I haven't read it yet...this is the first balanced review I've read. They are all "best book ever" or just the opposite.

Small quibble: it's Freedom RIDERS not writers. I blame Hillary Swank for that. Probably because I can't stand her and because thanks to that movie, my students thought the Civil Rights movement involved some kids keeping journals or something.

Hopewell said...

Thanks for correcting my too-fast-typing! My brain was picturing the riders, my fingers were typing writers!!

I shudder at the version of history my kids have had through the "sound byte an era" approach. My daughter still has no idea what World War II involved.....

Steph said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, despite the errors!

You are such a good reviewer!!!