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Book review and recommendation ( The Help by Kathryn Sockett)



Now, I understand why some people may see this book as being controversial. It is, after all, mostly a novel about  black women but written by a white woman. However, I have to point out something. The Help is a novel about a white woman writing a book about black woman. So, it is not like it is trying to present itself as something that it is not. There are three protagonists in this novel and everyone of them matters. The narrative is told from a perspective of three different woman: two black woman and a white woman.  A white woman is the one that is trying to write the story down, but it is obvious she can't do it without the help of the black woman. So, the critique of this novel on the basis of the fact that the white woman wrote it to make her seem like a hero seems misplaced to me. The Help is semi-autobiographical and it is obvious that the young white woman who is trying to write a novel about this subject is the writer herself. I think that both the young protagonist of this novel and  the actual writer are well aware of the fact that they can't fully understand what it felt like to be black in the South of USA in this time period (the fifties and the sixties).

 I do understand why some people complain about it, saying it is not her story to tell. As much as I liked this book, I have to admit that I can understand some of its criticism. Perhaps it is possible to interpret this novel in the sense that the white lady is somehow the saviour and this interpretation can be problematic for obvious reasons. In addition, this can be seen as self-indulgent. That all being said, isn't it a good thing that a white woman is willing to write this novel? I do agree that it is important to read authentically African American voices. However, that is something we should do anyway and it is not like this book is going to prevent us from doing it. I do feel this perspective can't hurt. Doesn't it mean that Kathryn Sockett is trying to understand what it was like? Isn't it good to have a white voice trying to understand the black voices? In addition, this novel is not just about racism. It is also a novel about abuse. It is a novel about relationships between woman and how wonderful and terrible they can. The  author had some personal reasons for writing about it and you will learn them if you read her eyes at the back of the book. I can't say that I'm an expert on the way things were in USA or the way they are now. I can only say my subjective opinion and that is that her heart seems to be in the right place. Now, let's start reviewing this book


There is a lot of sadness in this book, so don't say I didn't warn you. This book will probably make you cry, so if you don't feel like you can take the emotional strain at this moment in your life, perhaps leave it for when you feel stronger. Or don't. Some books breaks us and rebuild us all in the course of one reading. I believe this is one of such book. It made me cry, but it also made me laugh. There is humour in it, even amidst of all that sadness. Nevertheless, the sadness is very real. 22 pages into this novel and I was crying my eyes out. That has to be a record of some kind. Now, I've read books that made me cry before, but never one that made me cry so early into the story. If that is not a testament to the writer’s talent, I don’t know what is. 


The characters won me with the speed of light, first Abileen, then Minny and finally Miss Skeeter. These three really stood out to me. Not just because the story is told from their perspective, but because I felt there is something connecting them, despite the generation jazz. I’m not saying that there weren’t other characters just as important as this three because there sure were. Moreover, all of the characters presented are crafted with care. I felt like I could relate to every character in this book. Both the good and the bad ones are portrayed with such care.  The author tries to make you see what makes them act the way they do. Often it is fear. Sometimes it is hate. Despite being so serious, this book manages to be wonderfully human. That’s probably the secret of its success. 


To put in more fancy words, I would say that the literary merit of this book lies in its characterization. The way Stockett managed to portray her characters is exceptional. I don’t think I saw such powerful portrayal of Southern female characters in American literature since the time of Tennessee Williams. This book is all about the female perspective, but it doesn’t idolize woman. I really appreciate the honesty with witch the writer examined her female characters every step of the way. Take for example, the deeply troubled relationship between the protagonists Miss Skeeter and her romantic interest (what was his name again?). Skeeter just let him step all over her and as much as you’re annoyed with her, you get her. Skeeter is just a human being. A very tall girl in her early twenties that has never been kissed. Is it really a wonder Skeeter lefts things slide? Not saying that she (or any other young lady) should- but it is easy to get why. The same goes for Skeeter’s racist mother, the writer makes you see her as a human being. You can even understand why Skeeter loves her- despite it all.  

Similarly, at start the relationship/friendship between Skeeter and Hilly makes sense because there is an element of honesty in it. The friendship doesn’t last (sorry for the spoiler but it is kind of obvious from the start). Hilly is a lot harder to sympathize with, but when you learn she is a loving mother (nobody imagines a racist as a loving mother), there is a new dimension to her and frankly it kind of makes it worse…When you learn that she was heartbroken and that she’s probably not happy in her marriage, you don’t feel the need to justify her actions….but at the same time, you understand that sometimes people act out of hurt. The good doesn’t redeemed the bad. Yet, it makes sense to talk about the good as well.


 That is what I like about this novel, it ignores nothing and considers everything. The writer doesn’t try to justify anyone’s actions. What is wrong is wrong (racism for instance is always wrong) but as the story develops, the writer is constantly adding depth to characters. Honestly, the fact that racist are human beings too, it actually makes it all more not less serious and terrifying. If human beings can be so cruel to someone just because of their skin colour, where does it end? Portraying racist as monsters is the easy way out for a writer, portraying them as humans and reading about them/considering them in this way- that’s what really hurts. That’s what shows the full horror of racism.


Speaking of the hurt, a bit more about the crying page, that is page 22. It was even before the serious racial talk kicks in.  The moment that made me cry first was the act of a servant Abileen trying to soothe a baby girl who was just struck by her mother. The baby girl in question is May Mobley, who despite the fact she is just a baby, knows her mother (Miss Leefold) loathes her. The children always know it.  I was dumbstruck by the tragedy of a child having to grow up with a parent who will put her down every step of the way…like growing up isn’t hard enough on its own. To make the matters worse, May Mobley has to watch Abileen, the only person she can establish an emotional connection with being humiliated (on the basis of her race) by her parents.  The challenge this presents for Abileen is even greater. How to raise a child to be self-confident? How to install love into her, how to be an educator to that baby girl when the society sees you (and will try to present you) as unworthy due to your skin colour.

“I carry her out of the kitchen. I’m so mad at Miss Leefold, I’m biting my tongue. If the fool would just pay her child some attention, this wouldn’t happen! When we make it to Mae Mobley room, I set in the rocking chair. She sob on my shoulder and I rub her back, glad she can’t see the mad on my face. I don’t want her to think it’s at her.
“You okay, Baby Girl?” I whisper. My ear smarting from her little fist. I’m glad she hit me instead a her mama, caus I don’t know what that woman would a done to her. I look down and see red fingermarks on the back a her legs.“I’m here, baby, Aibee’s here,” I rock and soothe, rock and soothe.But Baby Girl, she just cry and cry. ”
I can’t tell for sure, but I think this is the moment Abileen decides to strike back. This is, perphaps, one of the reasons why Abileen decides to fight the racist society/system back. She does it out of love for that little white girl, of all people. A little white girl that might grow up to be exactly like her mother. Abileen is willing to do what true educators do. They put their hearts and soul into education of the young, not because they believe they will reach every child, but because they’re wise enough to know that even if they reach just one, all that work was worth it. The love that Abileen feels for May Mobley and the stories she tells her to teach her about equality, to me this seems to be a wonderful interpretation of that famous quote of Martin Luther King: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”


Now, I’ve said that woman are not idolized in this novel and that is truly the case. Most of the relationships examined in this novel are those between white and black ladies. This very feminine perspective of racial struggles is a very important one. We’re used to seeing man as abusers. Yet the black women in this novel are afraid of white ladies, not white man. They don’t see much of a white man they work for, often leaving home not long after the man of the house arrives from home. White man are a treat, but only if the black ladies make the white ladies angry. Unless I’m mistaken, there is a notion that the woman are often behind racist acts, perhaps even more than man themselves. The acts of violence by white man are sporadic, the ones of white women are planned and executed with care. Not to mention the hurting words. 


Psychological violence is often overlooked. This novel doesn’t overlook it. That is what makes it so tremendously important. It examines the violence done to women by women. This is a subject that needs to be talked about. The modern day world perceives the man to be the ‘guilty’ one, and women often get the public sympathy. On some levels, it makes sense. Most men are indeed physically stronger than women, statistically most violent crimes are conducted by man, and hence laws that protect women make sense. Still, many women themselves have a considerable power in society. Women like Hilly, for example, have the power to cut out entire families and practically sentence them to starvation, just by making a few phone calls. 


This is something that needs to be examined. If we don’t teach little girls to protect themselves from psychological violence, we’re just adding momentum to the vicious circle of abuse. Abuse runs in circles, for instance the mother of May Mobley has a mother who treats her horribly. A coincidence? I don’t think so. The bottom line is that some things are always wrong. Racism is always wrong and so is abuse. What makes this novel so unique is that it puts forward this idea that the abuser is as likely to be a woman as a man. Good and evil is not a matter of a gender. Ethics don’t have a gender. 


Why? Because a moral choice is always an individual choice. You never know what someone will decide to do. Women can do just as much wrong as man. They can be just as dangerous.  We need to teach children and young of any gender or race to protect themselves from psychological violence. Physical and sexual violence is more visible, but psychological violence is just as bad. The worst thing is when they are all combined. Lord have mercy for the victims, especially if young. Rebuilding one’s self after abusive attach is a struggle. Rebuilding one’s self after systematic abuse is even struggle. When you look at it…. 

What is legalized racism if not systematic abuse?


Legalized racism is certainly one of the worst things that human beings have ever done to one another. This novel examines it. Perhaps it doesn't center only on that, but it does put together the idea that we need to stay alert so that it doesn't happen again. At one point in the novel, Celia says how they want the blacks to be separate but equal. However, as doctor Martin Luther King Junior knew so well, there is no such thing. I do believe that this novel doesn't run away from the subject of racism. The narrative perspective is very much a female one, but it doesn't take anything from the novel.


'That book is giving your wrinkles', my husband commented. He was right. For most of the time spent reading this book, there was a definite frown on my face. This book did give me wrinkles, or made them more pronounced, but it was very much worth it. At its core, racism is something that is so terrible that it is hard to put it in words. Yet it needs to be put down in words. The same goes for abuse. This is especially the case when it comes to subtle abuse and racism, the one that never ends. Possible the worst thing about racism is that it destroys the most beautiful and innocent of human relationship because it always leaves that worm of a doubt….for the black person who feels like a traitor for establishing a friendship with a white person and for a white person that always has to carry that historical guilt. Both of them are, in some ways, forced to question what is dearest to them. I don’t think the writer was wrong to write about such friendships. I don’t think it takes anything away from the seriousness of the book. True friendship is such a rare thing that it always ought to treasured. No matter the circumstances it is born in.


There is only one flaw in this novel and that is that the plot feels a bit too convenient and so does the ending. Moreover, the ending seemed even a bit rushed to me. In contrast, some parts of the novel felt a bit slow. There was some repetition and some things were kind of obvious. Nevertheless, the ingenious characterization more than made out for it. The way the writer portrayed her characters really drew me in. There is so much warmth to this novel and that is saying something considering how grave its subject it. 


The help. A novel within novel. A novel about writing a novel. It could be said that The Help offers a unique perspective. It is a perspective of a white woman who is trying to see through the eyes of a black women and write for them but who is at the same time aware she can never do them complete justice. The protagonist of this novel Miss Skeeter is writing a book on servants. Miss Skeeter is very much aware of her inability to understand everything, to truly grasp the position of servants, but she tries and she doesn’t gives up.  I think that makes her voice important. The same could be said for the writer of this book. At the end of the copy I have, Stockett writes about her fear of not telling it all or not telling enough. I’m sure she wondered and agonized many times over whether she did the theme justice. It is such a challenging topic to discuss, even at today’s day and time.  Personally, I think Kathryn Stockett has done a great job. Her book is not perfect, but it comes pretty close. 

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