Mar. 25th, 2013

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The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was expecting The Help to be a slightly insulting chicklit novel but before I knew it I was hooked. The novel is told through the point of view of three women living in a small town in Mississippi in the early 60s: two black women, Minny and Aibileen, who work as maids, and one young white woman, Skeeter, who dreams of becoming a published writer and exposing the hard life of black women.

Skeeter, indignant with the way her society treats black women, puts together a book of anonymous interviews of the town's maids, exposing the underbelly of 60's southern America. The gathering of these stories sets in motion incidents that put Minny and Aibileen's jobs in danger, maybe even their lives.

Full of good intentions, Stockett's novel is unintentionally campy, reminiscent at times of pulpy trash like The Valley of the Dolls. There's something drag queenish about Skeeter herself. Another character, the mantrap hillbilly Celia, who is shunned by small town society because she's too voluptuous, seems to have been created with an eye on a Marilyn Monroe postcard.

A lot of Stockett’s material was apparently taken from her own upbringing (from what she observed and understood later as a white woman from the American South). Characters are either good or bad, though, with no subtlety in between. More often than not the white ones are ignorant and evil while the black ones are good, kind and hardworking. A lot of emotion comes through as sentimentality, as if written with an eye for the Hallmark Channel’s movies. It’s a novel that portrays the 60s as we imagine it rather than what it was really like.

It's an enjoyable read nevertheless. Stockett conjures a fascist world that reminds me of the claustrophobia and horror of Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. It's a world we haven't completely left behind.

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