October 8, 2010

Book Review: The Help, Kathryn Stockett

I've spent the last week reading a book I borrowed from the friend of a friend. I became so engaged in the story that I thought of it every day until I could get back to it again. The book is called, The Help. Kathryn Stockett's book of historical fiction, set in Mississippi during the early days of the 1960's, doesn't focus much on the dangerous physical brutality of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, she sets out to tell the story of the tenuous relationships between the white women of Jackson, Mississippi and the black women who served them every day.

The Help gives us a glimpse into the lives of Southern women, black and white, who were raised to follow a certain set of unwritten social rules related to race. One of the main characters, Skeeter, has a burning desire to become a writer. Her first attempt is a secretly and anonymously written collection of stories by the black women of the town who serve the white women, many of whom are Skeeter's friends. As she gathers the stories, she soon learns that the connections between those serving and the served are not nearly as clear cut as she'd believed. Her own bonds with the white community begin to change as she finds the courage to follow her own convictions, buoyed by the strength of the women whose stories she's writing.

The book, published in 2009, received positive reviews like this one in The Washington Post and this one at The Huffington Post. However, other reviewers like this one in the California Literary Review and this blogging mom raise concerns about a white author telling this story, intimating that Stockett's characters rely too heavily on stereotypes. They draw comparisons between Stockett and Skeeter and their similar backgrounds and career choices and criticize Stockett's use of vernacular when writing the dialogue of the African American women.

While I understand those comments, I feel that Ms. Stockett has written a story worth reading. First, it does something that made me choose history as a major in college. It brings dates and events to life by telling the STORY of the kind of people who lived them. Not only did I feel a real connection to the women in those pages, I gained a deeper understanding of a social situation I'm not unfamiliar with since I  live in Arizona, a border town hot with immigration issues.

Kathryn definitely knows how to write a story that touches the emotions. I laughed out loud more than once. I cried, I felt guilty. And, I alternately admired and feared for the courageous women who sought to tell their story. When I put the book down, I had that satisfying sensation I get after feeling my mind and heart have been stretched in a new way. Most importantly, Kathryn has written a good story. Unfairly "vernacular-ed"or not, it has the possibility to engage readers in a topic they might never have considered otherwise.

This review is a little late since the book came out last year but I was busy with a three month old at the time.  I'm guessing some of you are as behind in your reading as I am! If you haven't already read it, take the time to check it out. Especially some of you dear friends whose eyes glaze over when I talk passionately about history. THIS is why. It's just someone's story - and it is as worthy of reading as yours is.

If you have a favorite book, add it to the comments list! I'm back on the reading wagon.

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