This is one of the rare times that I saw the film before I read the book. I remembered quite liking the film “The Help” at the time, but thinking that it lacked depth. I had intended on reading the book, but hadn’t gotten around to it because to be honest, I wasn’t really that enthusiastic. Then I came across the Penguin By Hand Series. A series of general fiction books written by women, these beautiful paperback editions each show off a different kind of craft in beautiful embossed designs. “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, is gorgeously decorated like a quilt and if you run your fingertips across the cover, it feels like it’s been quilted. I picked up a copy and I’m hoping to eventually get the full set of these beautiful books.
“The Help” is set in Jackson, a city in the state of Mississippi, USA in the early 1960s, where racist attitudes and racist laws are still very much in force. The book is narrated by three different women: two maids and a graduate. Aibileen is a black maid who has been working for white families for decades. Minny, who is also a black maid, is Aibileen’s younger friend whose smart mouth gets her into a lot of trouble. Skeeter is a young white woman who has just come back from college and is looking to start her career in journalism. When Skeeter’s friend Hilly conspires to introduce separate toilets for black maids in a racially motivated “health initiative”, Skeeter is inspired to interview black maids in Mississippi and write about the their lives. However, the risks of being caught after curfew and of the maids being found out by their employers, not to mention the risk that the story won’t even get published, prove to be significant hurdles for Skeeter’s scheme.
I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. The film is almost more of a comedy than a drama and paints Skeeter as an almost insufferable Mary-Sue. The book is far, far better with a lot more substance and nuance. Skeeter is much more well-rounded as a character with plenty of faults and many sacrifices to make. Instead of being a book about a privileged girl following her dreams of becoming a writer, it is a book about a white woman learning that good intentions are no substitute for empathy and understanding. I thought that Aibileen and Minny were also much better depicted in the book, with far more focus on their home lives and their own perspectives. I really felt that where the movie glossed over the racial issues, the book went into far more depth and detail. Minny in particular has so much more going on than meets the eye, and is an incredibly complex and interesting character.
Stockett is a convincing and evocative writer with a real flair for characters and relationships. I think my only lingering reservation is that I would have liked to have seen a story of working as a black maid in Mississippi in the ’60s written by a black author. I was somewhat mollified after reading “Cane River” and I do think that Stockett was able to tackle this topic with sensitivity and insight. A surprisingly enjoyable novel that is easy to read, I would highly recommend it over the film.