I was very impressed by The Help. I’d passed over it in my reading considerations perviously as it was not a topic or setting with which I had any familiarity or understanding whatsoever, it not being part of my family’s or country’s history.
So many thanks to that sadly anonymous blogger whose review convinced me to read the book. I am ever so glad I did.
However, I also feel like it isn’t a book I can say much about because I have no authority to do so. I’m a 21st century white woman living on the other side of the world. This is foreign history to me; something I look back at with appropriate outrage that people could treat other people that way (and it is genuine outrage, but for me the reading experience was also rather like watching the inexplicable behaviour of creatures that could have come from another planet – making me love Abiliene’s invention of Martian Luther King for Mae Mobley).
I was fascinated by the author’s note at the end as well. She said two particular things there that struck me. Firstly that she didn’t know if she had the authority to write a book in the voice of a black woman, and secondly that Mississippi was rather like her mother – she (Stockett) was allowed to criticise her (Mississippi) as much as she wanted, but should a stranger do it, then that was something else again.
I kind of felt that way as a reader. I could read and love the book (and I did), but because of my own history and background, I don’t feel I have the right and qualifications to analyse the book and make judgments on its portrayal of its characters. I don’t know enough to know what kind of portrayal of the situation this is – does it walk a balanced line through its particularly thorny issues, or does it lean towards one side or the other, white or coloured? I don’t know. So I’m not going to even try to comment.
I will only say that if this is even close to an accurate portrayal of the times and situation, it is a terrible blot on the country’s history. I don’t deny other countries, my own included, have their own blots and stains, but this one does seem particularly horrific to me. And the bit that shames me most, is that I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to stand up for what is right or not. I hope I would, but the person who is sitting here at her computer in 2011, writing this, doesn’t have generations of history and ingrained racism and whatever else built into the development of the US civil rights moment behind her. Who would I be if I did? I have no idea.
After saying I choose not to comment in any detail on the book, I have to mention Hilly. I totally detest Hilly, but as I was writing the previous couple of paragraphs I realised that it isn’t actually her racism that made me dislike her so much. It was her petty self-centredness. I can’t stand people like that, be they white, black or blue with pink polka dots. I find that kind of petty nastiness to be particularly horrible. A generically evil villain usually at least has a reason for what he or she does, someone like Hilly just does it because she can. People like Hilly give me the shivers.
As a last quick word (without spoilers), I hope things work out well for Abilene and Minny, for Skeeter off on a new adventure where she can discover who she really is outside her constricted world. And I really, really want Celia and Johnny to have a long, happy life together. Sometimes, as the saying goes, living well is the best revenge.
P.S. I’ve made sure the cover matches the edition of the book I read. (I was reading the Kindle book, but the UK version due to geographical restrictions.) I do think the US cover with the birds on the yellow background is pretty, but I also felt it kind of plastered over the issues the book was dealing with, while the UK cover was much more up front about it. The US one felt a bit like a bait and switch to me – here, buy this book with the pretty cover and you’ll have handed over your money before you find it is about such a fraught issue as race relations in Mississippi in the early 60s.
Simply (if anything about this book can be called simple) as a book and a reading experience, I’ve rated this 10/10. I found it amazing to read (and infuriating and plenty of other things). But my caveats above still stand, so I don’t know that my rating actually means anything at all.