Saturday, April 17, 2010
The Help (AKA The One You've Been Waiting For)
First of all, the history of me and this book (yes, there's a history, and it's very important :)). A few months ago, we had extensive discussion of P&P on the Swia. gg and there were a few objections to the topic from non-JA lovers. Naturally, I felt mystified by their disinterest but try to refrain from my favorite (well one of my favorite) topics. One of the chief detractors of my taste in literature (well she didn't detract my taste, just said she doesn't like P&P OR Emma) was GG (shall not put more than her initials, b/c I don't want to incriminate her (and I think she might now appreciate her name online)) but anyway she recommended The Help as a piece of excellent historical fiction. There was definite interest in the book and after Aunt Sarah read it, I decided I simply needed to give it a whirl, even though I already knew it wasn't strictly my type, taking place in the civil rights era in Mississippi (fun to know how to spell that :)). So I put it on the hold at the library where i was quite far down on the list (was this book in Oprah's Book Club or s/t?) and I got it during Pesach... and I started it last week and finished it today.
So what did I think of it? First of all, this was my first book I've read since starting this so I definitely kept on composing reviews in my head, which was kind of distracting (though for this one, I'd have been doing it anyway, since I would've posted a review on the gg) but I think it definitely kept me thinking actively the whole time... and since it's that kind of book, that's a good thing.
Well did it keep me thinking? It's a civil rights story... so the first question is, is it relevant? I mean we all know segregation was an ugly era in American history and since we're all Northerners here (or at least I am and I'm the only one reading this :)) it's not even one we have to feel guilty about... or do we? I mean I'm not racist at all, but I definitely buy into some stereotypes... but scratch that, those stereotypes are true (and more about stereotypes later). The thing is, I think part of the guilt or discomfort comes from the same root as the "It can't happen here" fallacy associated w/ Nazi Germany and Abu Ghraib (and don't I sound like a raving liberal? sorry I had a discussion with Peryl about whether evil is in-bred or situational and the centerpiece was the Abu Ghraib scandal and I REALLY don't mean to compare the two just that they are both examples where people did bad things and then claimed it was just the situation). Anyway the point is, given that Mississippians really believed that blacks were inferior, their attitude was actually quite understandable (I don't mean their treatment of their maids, I mean segragation in general). So the question becomes, why did they believe it, and did they really believe it at all? Or was it just a leftover attitude from slavery, at which point they believed it because it was the only way they could justify their way of life? Okay this all really has nothing to do with the book so I'll stop now.
ANYWAY, back to my point about stereotypes, the author mentions she wanted to write the book as kind of an anti-Mammy portrayal of the black domestic service, but... I have to say, I didn't find any of it at all surprising - the white characters behaved stereotypically toward the blacks, and the black maids were all these very good and caring, and very strong woman - smart, hard-working, willing to do anything for their families, submissive because they needed to be... I don't have a problem with any of this, I think it's a true stereotype, but I'm sorry it is definitely a stereotype. So if Katherine Stocktenn (I think that's her name) think's she's breaking new ground... sorry but no.
On the other hand, it IS entertaining - The three narrators are very likeable and I love reading about the black culture in the sixties - it makes me feel so magnanimous :) - see I do care about the less fortunate :) and the truth is, despite what I would have thought, the book meets one of my main criteria for being a good one, it doesn't ever get too tense - I mean, they're a little worried about the repercussions of the book, but it works out well for everyone and even Skeeter's mother doesn't die (at least not in the book). and the story moves along pretty nicely, and there's never any real discomfort w/ good ppl doing bad things or getting into trouble - so in some way, I'd say it's actually a feel good books - and that's the only kind I like :)
So what didn't impress me about this book? Well, this ties in with the stereotypes thing - the characterization was just not that original - I mean she's trying to make her point about how help was treated in the South, so she makes the bosses into these total witches - Miss Leefolt is a terrible mother and always trying to act richer than she is and Miss Hilly is just a nightmare - but what does it prove that nasty people are nasty to their underlings? nothing at all. and the nice ones are nice so.... in the afterward, the author says the point of the book is that we're not so different underneath and i'm like really? like we didn't know that - now that message really isn't current...
to me, the most compelling moment of the book was actually where is talks about the death of Medgar Evars - they just convicted his killers a few years ago and at the time, I didn't care too much, but it made me happy reading about it to know they finally got justice (well, that sounds ma-ghty high flown, sorry y'all :)) The most disturbing message I really got out of it is the one of how trapped these people were - but Skeeter was almost as trapped and she was a privileged white girl - so the message there is education and jobs for everyone :) (again, liberal, liberal)
Okay, okay so what's the bottom line? I definitely enjoyed the book - and since Huvi told me it was slow in some parts and the ending wasn't so good, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would - it moved quickly, it wasn't too stressful or controversial, and I love hearing those good black ladies' voices - they really are like Mammy :) (sorry, author) I don't know if I'd recommend it, because I think that's the job of people who are too snobby for P&P, but it wasn't hard to read
4/5 of whatever I'm using for a rating
EDIT: so I just went looking on google images for a picture and the first 3 are images from other people's book review blogs - too funny, no? guess it's a popular book for a popular pastime :) but anyway, I read one of the reviews and she just loved it because she thought the characters were so loveable and had such great stories you could really get into... and I suppose that's mostly true, though I think there was a *little* too much pathos (dead son, abusive husband etc.) but anyway, I guess I kind of take that for granted... so, sorry it is a really good book, don't get me wrong because I like to get on my high horse (well, if people didn't write pretentious books, I would feel no compulsion to unpretense...)
ANOTHER EDIT: apparently, Evars's murderer was arrested in 1994, so I don't remember that (though I did read a Reader Digest article about it, now that I think about it) and died in 2001, so I must be thinking ot something else... but whatever, I think the point still stands
and also, I remembered something else - at one point, the New York editor asks Skeeter if she knows about MLK's march on Washington and she doesn't! kind of scary how much the media can control attitudes because they control the information flow... I mean reading this book, you have no idea how outraged the country was by Medgar Evars's death, but I just looked him up and Wikipedia and yeah... it was not unnoticed. - but of course, if we knew that, it would kind of detract from the desperation of the Help's plight so I guess it's all okay :)