I read this book having already watched the film about a year before. It has been a sort of habit of mine that if I do watch a film and I’m impressed by it, I will read the book too out of interest to see how purely the storyline has been adhered to. Or just for fun. Needless to say, I loved the film when I saw it, and so I was excited to read the book.
‘The Help’ is a story told by two black American maids (Aibileen and Minny) and a white middle-class young woman (Miss Skeeter), whose relationship to each other cross the lines of Mississippi State Law and public opinion when Miss Skeeter decides to write a book about the experiences of black women who are domestic servants to white middle class women and their families. In the process of doing this, they each have to confront many issues such as racial discrimination, gender discrimination, violence, brutality, friendship, and their own feelings of guilt, shame, and the need for public and personal justice.
Comparison to the Film
Because I had enjoyed the film so much, reading the book wasn’t really like grabbing desperately for vestiges of lost memories of the storyline in my head. Just as keenly as I was entranced by the plot of the film, so was I by the book. All in all, the purity of the plot of the book was largely stuck to. The only main way in which the film and the book differed was that the book is presented via three narratives of Aibileen, Miss Skeeter and Minny. This I believe made the book slightly more superior than the film. It enabled you to really get into the minds of the main protagonists and feel the scorn, hatred, shame, fear, triumph and victories just a keenly as they ‘felt’ it. It made the plot more balanced and appeared less like the film did to some, which is a Hollywood makeover trivialising serious issues that affected Afro-Americans not so long ago. Not an opinion that I agreed with I might add.
It was a powerful portrayal of 1960s America, so much so that often I was left in wonder, horror, and sober thought as to how it was only 50 odd years ago that this kind of discrimination and violence towards black domestic servants and black people in general was in full force. It brought me personally into an appreciation of how far the world has moved in terms of civil rights for black people since that time. Even though I am not Afro-American, I felt a new level of respect and gratitude for the activists well-known and not, who fought (and sometimes sacrificed their lives) for the freedom many black Americans have today. That was the most overwhelming impression the book had on me, and reading the story through Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter’s ‘words’ were the major contributing factors in that. Cinematically speaking, it made me realise how amazing the actresses who played Minny and Aibeleen were in the film, because they managed to convey a lot of the dialogue of their narratives in the book, in their acting. Especially Aibileen. I found it a powerful and overwhelming read. Yes, there were visual representations in the film that outshone the book, but similarly in the book, there were details and descriptions that the film alone could never convey. There may have been a few anomalies pertaining to the appearance of some of the characters but it was so very unimportant in the end. The important thing was the message of the book, and that was portrayed with skill, knowledge, dexterity, emotion and an impressive amount of sensitivity, delicacy and understanding (bearing in mind the book was written by a white American woman). At no point whilst reading it did I find myself cringing at exploitative stereotypes and thinly veiled ignorance of the subject matter (as can be the case when someone outside of the context of the subject matter portrays a side that was never and will never be their actual story to tell).
I think that Kathryn Stockett excelled herself in terms of flipping from narrative to narrative. She developed each section so that they all ended on a mini cliff-hanger that left you wanting more, but then it would switch to the next narrative section with a new person. I found this annoying at first, but as the book progressed I saw how vital this was in building up to the major climaxes of the novel. The suspense was almost unbearable at times and it made the major plot events thunder through your system with more impact than bland consecutive narrative accounts would have. Sometimes an event was repeated in another person’s narrative and this difference in the interpretation of events was powerfully employed by Stockett to develop the reader’s empathy and relation to the characters. It was nerve-racking at times.
Considering that she had so many characters to deal with in this novel, I think Stockett did a great job in producing well-rounded protagonists and supporting characters. I loved the way in which for me she did not dictate to the reader whom they should and should not like. Even the characters that displayed vile behaviour were shown to have likeable character traits. Basically she presented them as real human beings with strengths and weaknesses, and it really challenged you as a reader in terms of understanding how much a person’s environment can shape their thoughts, motives and behaviour.
‘You is kind, you is smart, you is important’ – Aibileen to Mae Mobley Leefolt, a child she looks after. I can’t put into words how powerful that one line was in the book. The context in which it is said is heartbreaking.
I highly recommend this book. Whether you have seen the film or not, I think it was a fantastic, engaging and mentally challenging read. It’s not just a story, it’s a challenge to examine yourself as a human being and the way in which you relate to and treat people.