Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: The Help

I had The Help recommended to me by several friends who read it earlier, and it was actually one of the first books I downloaded to my kindle when I first received it. But I didn't read it right away, and then actually kind of forgot I had it (that's the danger of not having an actual physical pile of books to keep track of). So it was a nice little surprise to find it hiding back there on page 10 of my book list. And it was an even nicer surprise that it was such a good read!

In case you've not heard, The Help is a story about two African-American women who work as maids in the home of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, and one young white woman who decides to tell their stories. Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of these three women. Their lives are just on the edges of the civil rights movement, and they are all affected by the Jim Crow laws of the state of Mississippi. I say "all" to include the young white woman, because she too is hindered by these laws -- they hinder her ability to be herself, a decent human being, and prevent her from standing up for what's right. But stand up she does -- by quietly telling the stories of the "colored" women who raise the white children of wealthy families.

There have been some complaints about the (white) writer using African-American dialect for the two black main characters, but I suspect these complainants are those kind of overly politically correct people who are so concerned about being perceived as racist that all they ever do is worry about what color someone's skin is, and therefore circle back around to actually being racist. I thought that the dialect was really well done -- not mocking in any way, but just the right amount, and soothing in its cadence. The differences between the voices of the two maids are subtle, but they are there -- one is more educated so she doesn't write in dialect, but when she's recapping conversation, she'll show herself speaking in dialect; the other had to leave school after 6th grade, and her written communication shows it, as she does write in dialect. However, both women are clearly shown as being of above-average intelligence and strength.

It's hard to say anything bad about this book -- it's not heavy handed with its message; it's well-written but also simply written; I really liked the three main characters, and I really despised the characters I was meant to despise. The rest I mostly felt sorry for. I was pleased to learn that my mother's book club had a discussion about how they all really learned a lot from reading this book -- most of them having grown up far from the American south, and (it must be said) far from very many people of color. They didn't know that this is what it was like before integration and busing, and the banning of Jim Crow laws. It's easy for someone in my age group to by cynical about this book, but if a book can open the eyes of just one person who reads it, I say it's a job well done.

In the end, it's a pretty light read, although there are some really serious topics covered that will give you pause for a while after finishing it. I do highly recommend this one.

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