The Help

  The possibility of summer reading wasn’t quite on my mind this year, since I have my head full of all those things I’m supposed to do, and just the guilt alone usually keeps me from doing other things, like read for pleasure. It so happened I was on an errand, and stopped at a bookstore in downtown Boston, which operates by collecting as many curious items as possible and rolling them outside in carts labeled $1, $3, or $5. They do not specialize in bestsellers, as I heard the store-clerk say on the phone later to a potential seller, and so while browsing the shelves in the quiet daze of the summer heat, I was surprised to alight upon this $3 gem.

I had confused this book for some time with Three Cups of Tea, which couldn’t be more different but has a similar looking title. That is how I judge books, I’m ashamed to say, by their covers. The night before I found myself at this tucked away bookstore, I’d happen to see a trailer on TV for the movie version of this book, and all of a sudden I realized this wasn’t Three Cups of Tea,  and all my preconceptions were wrong. In fact, this book was right up my proverbial alley, being a basic tale of women’s rights in the workplace, right after I had finished a feminist history of such things. My interest was further piqued when during the movie I saw a lot of strong women in film I admire (Alison Janey, Sissy Spacek, Emma Stone) but not a single leading man. For all I had recently read about a lack of women-centric films lately, this seemed to be stepping out of that mold.

But this is not a movie review, and as soon as I saw that trailer I almost hoped the movie wouldn’t be released for a while, so I could have sufficient time to read the book. And now here it was in my hands, for only $3! I started it that afternoon and read it going to and from work every morning, for study breaks on weekends, and managed to finish it relatively quickly. It was one of those books that my brain had to work to read at first, but I didn’t even mind.

The first interesting thing I noticed, was that the book is written from three separate first person views, which makes it intensely personal to read. The author pretty accurately writes them with a southern accent (not that I’m an expert), which is why I had a difficult time, and there were instances when the three characters weren’t very defined in voice, even if they were in lifestyle. And although not many readers can relate to living in Southern civil rights era Mississippi, many can relate to the aimless feeling of living at home after graduating college and wanting to make something of their dreams. For that matter, everyone has experienced the peer pressure of a bully and wanting to escape from under that oppression. In this book the bully was an individual as well as a way of life, and that gave the book power. There was a feeling of helplessness because the bully is so much larger than life, an institution, or in this case, the segregation.  What made this book different than other civil rights era fiction to my eye, was that the historical events at the time (Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King) took a back seat (no pun intended…) in the character’s lives and barely influenced them to make change. In fact, Skeeter, the college grad turned writer is downright ignorant about national events and her insular lifestyle instead fuels her desire for change. I like this approach because it seems more grassroots and realistic, because we forget about how long it takes news to spread to some places, or how inconsequential the words in a newspaper can seem when you are still living the same life before and after an historical event.

The author allows the many perspectives in the book to glimpse each character inside and out, showcasing the differences between the person we are or dream to be and the person we show to the outside world. The book itself was a metaphor for the transformative ability of thoughts and words, the power to divulge secrets and share your true feelings, rather than keep emotion bottled up, the norm of the suppressed 1950’s and early 60’s.  This emotional transformation was mirrored by the physical transformation of Skeeter, who has used the book to explore who and what she is, her morals, her personality, and her ambitions. Each character in the book explores some aspect of themselves that had lay hidden, and then uses those traits to build a new life. More than being a book about civil or women’s rights, this is a novel about the power of fear to suppress our true natures or desires, even our individuality. It was definitely an inspiring read and I obviously recommend it, read it before the movie comes out!

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