Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I'm about halfway through the audio version of Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help. The book has some of the strongest characters in any of the books I've read recently. I love that about it.

I grew up in East Orange, New Jersey and was in high school when the Newark riots occurred. I suppose coming of age in that environment is one reason why race relations has always been a subject of interest to me. Two of my short stories dealt with the subject: Clay in Alaska Quarterly Review (1989) and Child By Design in Eclipse (2006). But even now race is still a complex, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing subject. My children were in high school during the nineties, in Greensboro, NC and although things had come a long way some of the same issues still existed. And they still exist today, even with Barack Obama in the white house.

The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the Kennedy administration and it is about race relations. Skeeter is a young white woman from a wealthy farming family. She is part of the country club society, but she doesn't quite fit in. She is tall and hates her hair, among other things. Apparently this low opinion of her appearance has affected her confidence. She has rarely dated and has given up on that aspect of her life. She's decided to become a writer and to help her achieve this goal she has chosen to document what it is like to be a maid from the viewpoint of the local help.

I love the fact that Skeeter's goal is to be a writer. Adding to the civil rights discussion that is going on at the time is only a byproduct of what she wants. But she was raised by Constantine (an African American maid) and, in many ways, was closer to that woman than to her own mother. She seems to be a decent person with an open mind. At the same time she's turning her back on white friends who have been good to her over the years. I love the complexity of what Skeeter wants from life and I feel I know her.

There are other wonderfully developed characters in The Help, including two of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, who join in Skeeter's project for reason that are just as complex and fascinating as Skeeter's reasons. There's also a young white woman, Celia, who is from a poor background. She puts an entirely different spin on the subject of race relations and on the desires of women in general.

So far, the men in The Help are not as interesting as the women. They have been mostly secondary characters up to this point. But there is one in particular whom I think will become more important as I get further in the book. That's only one of the things I'm looking forward to finding out in the second half.

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