Vacation Reading: The Help

The Help is undoubtedly the most talked about book of the summer. It sounded like something I’d like, as historical fiction is my favorite genre; although in my old age, I’m becoming increasingly more interested in true stories. Which is perhaps why I was not quite as enthralled with the book as I thought I’d be. After reading so much non-fiction lately, I can’t entirely lose myself in a book that I know is purely fiction. But The Help is engrossing, and I hardly put it down in the two days it took to read it.

The story is told by three different narrators, and it chronicles the lives of a group of women in Jackson, Mississippi during the civil rights movement. Two of the narrators are black maids, and the other narrator is a privileged white woman fresh out of college who becomes aware of the plight of the black community and of her friends’ racist attitudes and contradictions. For instance, their maids were trusted to raise and nurture their children but not to use the same bathrooms. As the book progresses, she endeavors to share the stories of the maids and finds herself on the outs with her socialite friends.

SPOILER ALERT:

The story is compelling but the character development is what kept me reading. I have to admit, I felt skeptical about the whole plot with Skeeter writing the maids’ stories. It seemed a bit far-fetched, and that bothered me as I read. And at the end, I wanted to cry when Aibileen was forced to leave Mae Mobley, but I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story even though I know that similar situations occurred throughout the South during those times.

Again, I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if it had really happened. I can lose myself more easily in a silly novel by Janet Evanovich that has no illusions of being a true story than I can in a book like this that is raw and real but uses fictional characters. But perhaps that’s just my own hang-up.

That said, the story made me wonder what I would have been like, had I been raised in that society. I’d like to believe that I’d feel as Skeeter did, sympathetic to the plight of the maids who gave so much to the families they worked for and too often received in return only distrust and contempt.

I’d like to believe that I’d at least have been one of the kind ones — a Lou Anne, perhaps, or hopefully even someone who had the chutzpah stood up to the Elizabeths and the Hillys of the day.

Or would I have been an Elizabeth, content to sit by and observe the cruelties of my social set while my hired help grew more emotionally attached to my children than I?

Surely I wouldn’t have been a Hilly.  **shudder**

Or. Maybe I am capable of that kind of bigotry. Maybe we all are.

It’s disconcerting to contemplate because I THINK I know how I’d feel and how I’d act, but I suppose it’s entirely possible to become so ingrained in one’s culture and so influenced by the attitudes of those around us that we are impervious to our own prejudices.

I believe this is why The Help is so compelling. Not only is it a good story, but it makes you think.

I know many of you have read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts.