The Help

I know I’m late to the party. The book has been out since 2009 and the movie since last year.

I ordered my copy of The Help online and, as soon as it arrived, read through it easily in a few days. It is a damn easy read–one of those books that you can’t stop picking up (in between classes and at traffic lights).

But that’s not to say it isn’t well written and complex. Stockett has a lively, inventive voice and isn’t lazy with her words–she isn’t afraid to use language as a tool to flavour her already interesting story with added nuance, humour and wit. I’m not surprised that The Help strikes that rare balance of being concise and yet articulate: Stockett was rejected dozens of times whilst trying to publish this book, and went through multiple revisions of her manuscript.

The Help is about African American housemaids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. The story is told from the perspectives of three women: Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a twenty three year old white college graduate who dreams of being a writer; Aibileen, who has raised seventeen white kids but lost her own son two years ago; and Minny–sassy, brave, mother of a flock of children and wife to a threatening husband.

When Skeeter gets it in her head to write a book about the lives of ordinary maids in southern USA, she approaches Aibileen, and later Minny, to tell their stories.

The story is populated largely by female characters who are well-developed and not entirely predictable. Celia Foote is probably one of my favourite side characters–white trash, genuine to the bone, utterly likeable, she stands up as a foil to the obvious nemesis, the intolerably pretentious and hypocritical Hilly Holbrook. Whilst Hilly does sometimes border on one-dimensional, most of the other characters are complex, believable and do unexpected things.

The Help is a good reminder that the prejudices that are most insidious are those that go least noticed; those that masquerades as morals.

Some have complained that the African American slang used by Minny and Aibileen is forced and belittling. Naturally, being a Malaysian Chinese Australian, I have minimal understanding of African American slang, I can’t dispute or confirm this. To me, the slang sounded natural and rhythmical in my head.

I watched the movie same day I finished the book and enjoyed it. All the characters were well cast. Emma Stone–I’m starting to become a real fan of her–played Skeeter with sensitivity and liveliness. Viola Davis as Aibileen–quite amazing, really made you love her…Acadamy Award nominated for the role. Octavia Spencer as Minny–probably most like the picture of Minny I had in my head. Hilarious. Allison Janney as Skeeter’s mum. Bryce Dallas Howard (a ridiculously manly name) as Hilly Holbrook–random fact, she played Gwen Stacy in the Spidey films.

But of course in a movie you can never do as much as in a book…and so everyone felt a little flat, a little stereotyped. Scenes felt somewhat skimmed, though overall the writers stayed impressively true to the book. If you want to enjoy the movie more, I recommend you watch it before reading the book.

Both book and movie recommended.

Book: 8/10

Movie: 7/10

This post relates to Goal #5. Read and review one book per month (11/32)

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