Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Help - Skeeter & Scout's Coming of Age

“I always order the banned books from a black market dealer in California, figuring if the State of Mississippi banned them, they must be good.” --  The Help

I didn't realize what the movie was lacking until I finished reading the book.  Isn't that always the case - the book is ALWAYS better than the movie?  Well, since the film version of The Help carried such a high torch, it is only natural that the book would be an inspiring read.  Just not the way I expected it to be.

One of the pieces I wish desperately they kept in the film (and as a former filmmaker, I understand how difficult adaptations can be, so I do not hold this against them), is the love of reading and writing, the love of storytelling that is stressed from the first page to the last.  The book is divided into three narratives - with the exception of the Benefit chapter, which is a third person omniscient (when the reader and the author are aware of the characters' thoughts and actions) point of view.  The first narrative is Aibileen Clark, an older African-American woman who has been a maid for many white families in Jackson, Mississippi.  The second narrative is Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, who is the best cook in Mississippi, but is known as a "sass-mouth" to the white women that employ her.  The third and final narrative is Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a young white woman, recently graduated from college, and discovering she is an outsider in her group of affluent friends.  While Skeeter's friends are interested in marriage, babies, and telling their maids what to do, Skeeter wants to get a job at a publishing company and become a writer.  Since the story has been out for some time, I will spare the details of how these three protagonists get together.  Let's just say it has to do with a book and that book has to do with the help.

Of course, all novels need a villian, and that part is filled by Hilly Holbrook.  Stockett has created a frightening combination of mean girl/suburban snob/Mississippi racist in Holbrook.  Hilly is proud of her efforts to spearhead the Home Sanitation Initiative, which is one of the reasons Skeeter and Aibileen decide to put together their book.  Hilly is a world-class bully, an all-around horrible, selfish person, a vicious racist, and a fantastic representation of the South's views during the Civil Rights Movement.  Hilly's racist behaviors do not just extend to the help; once she figures out the Skeeter is looking for a change in the racial atmosphere in Mississippi, she immediately decides that if Skeeter is not with the rest of the "ladies," then she must be against them.  Hilly's cold shoulder and Skeeter's alienation from her childhood friends and guaranteed place in the Southern Belle social sphere reminds the reader of other parts of our nation's history when people where forced to  turn against family and friends for the sake of right and wrong.  I have to applaud Stockett for Skeeter's narrative when this happens.  While Skeeter knows she is doing right by creating this book, she also yearns for her ordinary life - the one that was promised to her since birth (the husbands, the benefits, the help), and yet the life she knows she despises and would never want for herself.  Skeeter is Scout all grown up as the rest of America holds on to outdated belief structures of class and racial superiority. Skeeter gets it, but her economic class and skin  color forces her to live a double life. Naturally, as her contemporary audience, we don't agree with this - at times I wanted to yell at Skeeter to grow up and get an opinion of her own - but my patience was rewarded as she begins to understand that fear of change held her childhood home in its choke-hold.

Aside from Hilly's Initiative, Stockett also infuses actual historical references such as the shooting of Medger Evers, Dr. King's March in D.C., and the new world of rock and roll and hippies.  While the dates aren't accurate (and she does address this in her afterword, which is as refreshing as an after-dinner mint), Stockett's message to her audience is as clear as the Dylan song she references:  the times were, in fact, a-changing.

Some of the scenes in the novel belong to another character, Miss Celia, who is the Huck Finn to Minny's Aunt Sally.  Minny manages to "civilize" Miss Celia, but it isn't before Miss Celia teaches ole Miss (and Minny) about why we need to think beyond the current culture. I always love an outcast - the person who can never be a part of his/her modern world due to his/her differences.  In a book where race sets who belongs where, it is interesting to see a character like Miss Celia.  She is a white woman married to a rich white man, but her hillbilly status puts her on the edge of Southern society.  She knows a thing or two about being a pariah, which makes Miss Celia and Minny such a great pair.  Minny has the attitude, but Miss Celia manages to steal some of the scenes with her ridiculous hair, accent, and questions.  I wish Stockett could write another book about the lasting friendship between Miss Celia and Minny.

The Help is a great story of what happens when a nation is ready to grow up.  You have the ones ready for change like Miss Skeeter, but lack the clue to what needs to be changed.  Skeeter gets a great lesson from Aibileen and Minny about what (or who) is at stake when these times need a-changing.  And Miss Celia is here to tell us that sometimes, when change is a long time coming, a little kindness goes a long way.
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