Sunday, August 7, 2011

"In the Shadows with Madeleine Cleary" - The Help, Kathryn Stockett

Today's blog is written by Madeleine Cleary, who will be appearing as a regular guest, writing reviews of books not normally associated with fantasy.

The Help, the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett, was rejected 45 times by publishers before it skyrocketed to the New York Times best-sellers list. This is a novel that will surely resonate with readers for many years to come.

Mammy in the classic novel, Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell is a loveable and loyal house-slave of the O’Hara family. She accepts her role as a slave very willingly and there is much affection between her and the white O’Hara family. Nobody ever asked Mammy whether she would like to change things. The concept was foreign and the white and black roles in society were accepted and firm. Moving away from the civil war era, Stockett sets her novel in the Deep South in Jackson, Mississippi. Set in the 1960s, just before Martin Luther King and before the civil rights movement, Mississippi was renowned by the rest of the United States as being slightly behind the times. Stockett draws from her own fond childhood memories of being raised by her African American nanny, Demetrie.

The novel follows three perspectives. Arguably the main protagonist is Aibleen; a loyal, polite and dedicated housemaid who has a talent for writing. Her best friend Minny is a fiery and smart-mouthed housemaid with cooking to die for. Last is Miss Skeeter; a single and upper class white woman who begins to question the black and white roles in society. Miss Skeeter, with the help of Aibleen and Minny, begings to construct a novel of interviews of African American housemaids and nannies about their experiences in white households. The divide was so great that African Americans in Jackson at that time were being beaten for using a “white” toilet; hence, the risk was immense.

Stockett wanted to capture the often-complex relationship between a white household and their black housemaid and nanny. Hence there was an emphasis in The Help on stories of love and respect juxtaposed with stories of neglect and abuse. The latter stories highlight the particularly strong racial prejudice and division at the time. There was a particularly poignant scene where Aibleen makes the ironic connection that whilst black women are trusted in raising white children, they are not trusted with the silver service sets. Irony is further teased out by Stockett: while the children love and dote upon their nanny, who generally played more of a presence in their lives than their own mothers, they generally would end up with the same racially divided mindset of their parents. It was a continuous cycle that seemed to never relent.

I was really intrigued by the persistence of the character of Aibleen. She had been ‘rearing white babies for 20 years’ and had watched them all grow into versions of their parents. Aibleen said that as soon as the children stopped being “colour blind” she would pack up and move to another family with a young baby or child. It took Miss Skeeter to ask Aibleen quietly, ‘do you ever wish you could change things’ to spark a flame to tell her story. There should not be any confusion, however, this is not about a white woman who writes a book. It is about the stories of the struggles faced by those dedicated and hard-working women who slaved away over children that were not their own.

This book is not just about sending poignant messages about race relations. It is also utterly hilarious. You will find yourself laughing out loud at the character of Minny who is so outrageous and controversial. However, I must caution, the “Minny’s Pie” incident may make a few readers feel a little queasy in the stomach. There is also some quite amusing toilet humour that will soften even the most serious of readers.

The novel is classified as fiction yet the novel reads like a collective memoir. Stockett used true stories gathered from experiences from others ,as well as her own, to form the characters of Aibleen and Minny. Aibleen’s strong sense of dedication contrasted with Minny’s own unique, flippant character which created an eclectic pair.

There is a strong sense of justice and proving that the voiceless can be heard. Even today there are still racial tensions and prejudices that exist in the United States and around the world. This novel, just like the novel that is written by Miss Skeeter, is controversial in its own right. There may be room for criticism that Stockett, as a white woman, does not have the right to write first-hand as a black housemaid. Stockett employs the black “dialect” in her writing to capture the thoughts of Aibleen and Minny. Some may say that this was not her story to tell.

This is the kind of book that you cannot leave alone. You are engulfed into the worlds of Minny, Aibleen and Miss Skeeter and you cannot wait to dive back on in again. I wanted to savour every last page until the very end and yet, contradictorily, I also needed to finish it.

I would say that this book has one flaw and that is that it ends. I wanted to continue to relish in the faithful and spiritual mind of Aibleen who decided to share to the world her words and her story. Compared with the vibrant and colourful characters of Minny and Aibleen, Margaret Mitchell’s Mammy seems like an empty shell. When Stockett began writing on The Help no one could have predicted the success it has become today. It has sold over 2 million copies in the United States and is now being made into a feature film released in Australia this September. Those 45 publishers must be kicking themselves.

1 comment:

  1. Read the book and ask yourself what social changes since the 50's have been true and lasting, and what remains at heart the same. I believe the answer may surprise you.

    And do read it.

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