Friday 25 November 2011

Book review : The Help - Kathryn Stockett

Most of the time, I review brand new titles when they've just been released or, quite frequently, before they've even hit the shelves in bookshops. However, this time, I'm reviewing The Help, which was first released in 2009 and instantly became a US best-seller, selling over 2 million copies.

The book is set in Mississippi in the 1960's, just as the Civil Rights movement was gaining pace and such historical and world-changing moments were occuring as the first black student being allowed into college, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King encouraging peaceful marches and the assassination of President Kennedy.

As a teacher of English and all things relating to the history and culture of English-speaking countries, I frequently teach my pupils about the life that black people in America had before the Civil Rights movement, mentioning slavery, the Jim Crow laws and segregation, before telling them about Martin Luther King and the changes he helped bring about. I had never, however, really considered how life would would have been for Americans, whatever colour their skin,  in the period while all these incredible changes were going on. The Help gives a fascinating insight into this period of change and the different attitudes that prevailed in the Deep South.

The book is told alternately through three voices, belonging to Aibileen and Minny, two black maids working for white families, and white Miss Skeeter, horrified by some of the things she hears and sees amidst her peers and  willing to risk it all to give her black contemporaries a voice.

It's interesting to see that the underdogs in the story aren't always the black maids, with "white trash" from the wrong side of town (and the wrong tax bracket) and "black sympathisers" being equally ostracised. As the fragile and dangerous friendship between the three women deepens, their stories unfold with many poignant and morally shocking tales, especially hard-hitting as you can imagine that these are stories based on real life experiences.

It reminds me of some of the great classic black women writers, such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrisson, and while being definitely anchored in a specific time and place, many of the book's messages are timeless and universal. Despite the poignancy and tension, there are still some real laugh-out-loud moments, such as the chocolate pie incident and Aibileen's story about Martian Luther King not being liked for being green.

The book has become in vogue again following the release of The Help in cinemas. I haven't seen the film but I have seen movie stills and the characters look exactly as I imagined them from the book. I'm sure the film will win a few Oscars but the book is so good, it certainly deserves a read too !

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £7.99

Format : Paperback
ISBN: 9780141039282
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 464
Published : 13 May 2010
Publisher : Fig Tree

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