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Friday, July 08, 2011


I'm not sure Kathryn Stockett's The Help will be the new American classic, but I am sure that its theme resonates within its readers' hearts and minds.  It is an  important theme, and Stockett's treatment is unusual, propelling this first novel from the ordinary to #1 on the NYTimes bestseller list.  It may be possible to count literature's great themes on one's fingers, but the superior writer is able to tackle her theme in a unique way.  Kathryn Stockett does this; the result is The Help is a tough book to put down.

The “help” of the title are the black women who historically took care of the South's white families and were treated as non-existent even as they moved through the rooms of those white families' homes.  The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, a city which gained fame during the Civil Rights period of the early 1960s.  Its main characters are three extraordinary women who buck the system, perhaps through fate rather than by choice, and emerge stronger and more independent.  The Help is also a book about women, regardless of race, coming into their own. Stockett's skillful development of these women's personalities raises them above stereotypes and allows each to emerge as a complete individual reacting to her times and situation in a personal manner.

Stockett's exposition comes through the voice of each character's immediate predicament.  We enter the homes of white women in their early 20s who were raised by black women and now hire them to serve in their homes and raise their children. It's a strange relationship not easily understood by those of us totally unfamiliar with the South of the 1960s. We're made to understand a little better through our main characters, a white twenty-two year old, Skeeter, and two very different black women, Aibileen and Minny.

We are reminded of the time, 1963 and 1964, through the rock 'n roll of the era and the Civil Rights events that occur, events I distinctly remember but only with the eyes of a Northern teenager.  Incredible as it may seem, as I read I began to see how whites could live both in the midst and apart from the incidents occurring around them.  These white women's daily interactions with the black help did not change. Fully expecting the status quo to remain, they remain blinded to the historical changes occurring in their own back yards.  Stockett does not stereotype southern women. The white women react to situations individually and according to their individual strengths and convictions.

The reactions of the black women are equally believable.  Depending on their circumstances, their reactions differ.  Their jobs and their livelihood are crucial, so how much they can be part of the Civil Rights movement happening around them varies from individual to individual.  It's easy to say everyone should be involved; it's quite another thing when one’s livelihood is threatened by that involvement.

The individuality of each woman—black or white—is essential to the theme.  We react as we do because we are all equal in our individuality.

If this were all there was to The Help, it would not have made the leap into a first rate book.  Kathryn Stockett took each situation whether it involved class, marriage, civil rights, freedom, or understanding and skillfully made parallels between the black and white characters in the book.  We are exposed to the complexity of relationships, the complexity of race, and the consequences of not dealing honestly, fairly, and openly with one another.  We all bear the burdens caused by these shortcomings in society.  We share a common humanity, for good or bad.

The Help is set nearly 50 years ago.  Times have changed and so have some situations.  But not everything has changed.  It is important, periodically, to be reminded of how far we still have to go. Kathryn Stockett gently but firmly urges us to be better.

The Help will be out as a movie this August.

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