Monday, February 17, 2014

Reviewing The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Blurb:  Aibileen Clark is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, raising her seventeenth white child. She's always taken orders quietly, but lately it leaves her with a bitterness she can no longer bite back. Her friend Minny Jackson has certainly never held her tongue, or held on to a job for very long, but now she's working for a newcomer with secrets that leave her speechless. And white socialite Skeeter Phelan has just returned from college with ambition and a degree but, to her mother's lament, no husband. Normally Skeeter would find solace in Constantine, the beloved maid who raised her, but Constantine has inexplicably disappeared.

Together, these seemingly different women join to work on a project that could forever alter their destinies and the life of a small town--to write, in secret, a tell-all book about what it's really like to work as a black maid in the white homes of the South. Despite the terrible risks they will have to take, and the sometimes humorous boundaries they will have to cross, these three women unite with one intention:  hope for a better day.

I watched the movie so why did I read the book?
Because I found the movie uplifting and I needed a shot in the arm.
Because I'm curious. What's the difference between the book and the movie? Is there one?
Because I took care of other people's children for over fourteen years. But we won't get into all that personal stuff. This book isn't about me.
Because I've always championed the oppressed.
There are other reasons. But that's enough for now.

Comment by comment; quote after quote--this is my reading adventure...

This author is skilled at allowing her characters to talk using their own words.

Note to self:  Reading isn't a race. I want to savour the words, learn from the author.

'Fact, her whole body be so full a sharp knobs and corners, it's no wonder she can't soothe baby. Babies like fat. Like to bury they face up in my armpit and go to sleep.' (p. 2)

Already, on page three, I've spotted a difference between the movie and the book. The book is deeper--more explanation, more story.

'She ain't but twenty-three years old and she like hearing herself tell me what to do.' (p. 3)

'I don't hate much in life, but me and that dress is not on good terms.' (p. 4)

'[T]hat's the way prayer do. It's like electricity, it keeps things going.' (p. 27)

'If this place was in a storybook, there'd be witches in those woods. The kind that eat kids.' (p. 36)

'I look at Miss Celia Rae Foote hard. I've never in my life had a white woman tell me to sit down so she can serve me a cold drink.' (p. 38)

'There are ten rooms downstairs and one with a stuffed grizzly bear that looks like it ate the last maid and is biding for the next one.' (p. 38)

'I sure didn't like [Gone With the Wind] the way they made slavery look like a big happy tea party. If I'd played Mammy, I'd of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own man-catching dress.' (p. 58 - 59)

'My favorite photograph is of the three of us sitting in the football stands in junior high, all jammed together, shoulder to shoulder. What makes the picture, though, is that the stands are completely empty around us. We sat close because we were close.' (p. 64)

The servants seem more like mothers to the children than their actual mothers. It's different from my experience caring for children in day care centres. Those mothers were engaged, devoted to their children. These mothers are detached from their children like they don't know how to relate or like caring for their own children is some how beneath them.

'If I begged and practiced my catechism, Mother would sometimes let me go home with Constantine...It was a thrill to be in such a different world and I'd feel a prickly awareness of how good my shoes were...

"Be nice to the little colored girls when you're down there." Mother said to me one time and I remember looking at her funny, saying, "Why wouldn't I be?" But Mother never explained.' (p. 71 - 72)

'I took Constantine for granted at times, but I think I lucky I was to have her... [I]t was delicious to have someone to keep secrets with... But it wasn't just...skirting around Mother. It was having someone look at you after your mother has nearly fretted herself to death because you are freakishly tall and frizzy and odd. Someone whose eyes simply said, without words, you are find with me. ' (p. 75 - 76)

'If chocolate was a sound, it would've been Constantine's voice singing. If singing was a color, it would've been the color of that chocolate.' (p. 78)

When you're surrounded by a certain expectation it just becomes second nature. You don't question it. And if you do, something had to have woken you up. 
Skeeter grew up on a plantation. And it seems that all the people around her seem fine with treating blacks as second-class citizens. So why does she have a problem with it?
On page 78, I begin to see why.
Kathryn Stockett uses the scene between the black maid and the white teenager working together on a jigsaw puzzle to offer me, the reader, a puzzle piece.

Would Constantine be able to read and write? And if not, who is replying to Skeeter's letters? Her mother?
I guess I'm wrong because...
 'Our letters were like a yearlong conversation, answering questions back and forth, continuing face-to-face at Christmas or between summer school sessions.' (p. 79)

Where is Constantine? Why did she leave? And why can't I remember that part of the movie?

'I still hadn't heard from Harper & Row, so instead of buying a plane ticket to New York, I rode home to Jackson...
By September...[I'd] given up hope of every hearing back from Harper & Row' (p. 80 - 81)
As I'm actively involved in building my own author career, I enjoy reading about Skeeter's struggles to become a journalist.

'Anger works its way up my arms.' (p. 87)

And another difference between the movie and the book, in the movie, I don't recall being made aware of the source of inspiration for Skeeter's writing project.

'I wonder if I'll ever write anything worth anything.' (p. 104)
Every writer's lament. 

In my opinion, the most important and most endearing part of the entire book (and movie) is a scene between Aibileen and Mae Mobley. Even at two years of age, Mae Mobley has heard her mother tell her that she's bad so often that she's beginning to internalize the message.
'I look down at Baby Girl, see how her forehead's all wrinkled up between the eyes. She studying hard on something.
I touch her cheek. "You alright, baby?"
She say, "Mae Mo bad."
The way she say it, like it's a fact, make my insides hurt.
"Mae Mobley," I say cause I got a notion to try something. "You a smart girl."
She just look at me, like she don't know.
"You a smart girl," I say again.
She say, "Mae Mo smart."
I say, "You a kind little girl?"
...I say, "You a kind girl," and she nod, repeat it back to me... [T]hat's when I get wondering, what would happen if I told her she something good, ever day?'  (p. 107)

'I want to stop that moment from coming--and it come in ever white child's life--when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites.' (p. 112)
That's one reason why you should be very careful how you treat others and yourself--especially when you are around children.

'I swallow the tire iron that's rising up in my throat.' (p. 164)

Mae Mobley's mother tells Skeeter that while she was at her sister Trudy's...
' "Not to mention she has live-in help, every day, every hour. I hardly had to see Mae Mobley at all."
I cringe at this comment, but no one else seems to notice.' (p. 172)

Scene between Skeeter and Aibileen
' "I's thinking I ought to do some reading. Might help me with my own writing."
"Go down to the State Street Library. They have a whole room full of Southern writers."...
Aibileen gives me a dry cough. "You know colored folks ain't allowed in that library."
I sit there a second, feeling stupid. "I can't believe I forgot that... I'll be glad to pick the books up for you," I say.
Aiblileen hurries to the bedroom and comes back with a list. "I better mark the ones I want first. I been on the waiting list for To Kill A Mockingbird at the Carver Library near bout three months now. Less see..." ' (p. 179)

And...and my second favourite scene is the one that begins on page 197 and ends on page 201--between Skeeter and the very tall man.

'No one tells us, girls who don't go on dates, that remembering can be almost as good as what actually happens.' (p. 199)

'[H]e just kept staring. "I've been thinking about you. You're smart, you're pretty, you're"-- he smiled--"tall".
Pretty?" (p. 200)

'[O]ut of the blue, he kissed me. Right in the middle of the Robert E. Lee Hotel Restaurant, he kissed me so slowly with an open mouth and every single thing in my body--my skin, my collarbone, the hollow backs of my knees, everything inside of me filled up with light.' (p. 200 - 201)

'For days and days, Jackson, Mississippi's like a pot a boiling water.' (p. 231)

'Some folks is whispering, murmuring to God, and a quiet power fill up the room, like bees buzzing on a comb.' (p. 244)

'For Two-Slice Hilly.' (p. 402)
I hope you laughed--I sure did.

'I let Mother's words sit like a tiny, sweet candy on my tongue.' (p. 402)
Skeeter's mother has just redeemed herself in my books.
(p. 428)
Well that was fleeting.

Another bitter, sweet moment on page 436. I wanted to cry but I laughed out loud, instead.
' "Don't think you can just let yourself go after I'm gone. I am calling Fanny Mae's the minute I can walk to the kitchen and make your hair appointments through 1975." ' 
I hear my mom's voice so strongly in those words.

'Now that everyone knows about Mother's cancer, it is as if she's let go of the few threads that kept her upright. The marionette strings are cut, and even her head looks wobbly on its post.' (p. 437)

Despite the obvious dangers, Skeeter's book seems to be have written so effortlessly. Everyone writes one chapter--in her own words, from her own life.  But I'm sure, in reality, it's not that easy.

Heart warming scene alert--page 476. 

This is such a wonderful book. Read it when you're feeling blue. It's sure to pick you up.

Kathryn Stockett is especially gifted at capturing the voices of her characters.

The last pages of this book are like the back porch. This is where Kathryn Stockett holds court. She writes about the black maid who raised her; being from Mississippi and about writing The Help.

And closer to my Mayne Island home...
On one of our big sister islands, Salt Spring Island, there is a community of African-Americans. Many in this community can trace their family back to escaped slaves. I'm in awe of the courage it surely took to leave all you know, travel the underground trail way and start a new life in a foreign land. 
To learn more, read...
B.C.'s Salt Spring Island a beacon to black pioneers (article)
The Black History on Salt Spring Island (article)
Every Goodbye Ain't Gone (book) (on AbeBooks)
Every Goodbye Ain't Gone (book) (on Amazon) ***
Sharing my author journey...

This is a short month but I've been using it well. So far I've
submitted seven manuscripts--most have been under 1,000 words. I've submitted to literary journals, book publishers, literary contests, and to authors. I've submitted my stories in hopes of being published or to win a contest or to receive critiques. One of these critique opportunities is through WordsThaw--the literary festival I told you about last week. They call this critique opportunity Brief Encounter. The brief (15 minute) encounter is with an established author and I can't wait to meet with her. Another critique opportunity is through W0W--women on writing. Women on Writing is currently holding their Winter 2014 flash fiction contest. I paid ten dollars to enter the contest and additional ten dollars to receive the feedback. I've done this before and have always receive more than my money's worth. And last but defiantly not least, I submitted a short story to my writing group and look forward to receiving their valuable feedback on the last Friday of the month.

Part of my education as a writer is not only to learn how to make a submission but also learning who to send my submission to.  I find it helpful to ask myself, how will this submission further my career?
How did I learn how to answer this question? By doing research, for example...
On the House of Anansi submission page, I read:  'Anansi prefers writers who already have a history of published works (eg. previous books, anthologies, literary/academic journals, newspaper/magazine articles etc.)
It was the words that appear with in the brackets that led me down the right path.
On the Goose Lane Editions submissions page--under the heading Who we publish, I read:  'Many of the authors who publish with the Goose have contributed to distinguished literary journals and magazines such as The Fiddlehead, The Antigonish Review, The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review and Maisonneuve, newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Telegraph Journal, and the Ottawa Citizen, magazines such The Walrus, MacLean's, Geist, Canada's History, Reader's Digest and Toronto Life, or broadcasters such as CBC, Radio Canada and PBS.'
They gave me a whole host of publishers to submit to.
And because I am a Women's Fiction Author I seek out publishers where woman's stories are valued and woman authors are supported--book publishers like Inanna Publication , Three O'Clock Press and Second Story Press
The path to publication is like solving a mystery--clue after clue.
Friday's Guest Post: The Road to Publication by Joan Hall Hovey 


Laurie Buchanan said...

LOVED the book, enjoyed the movie, so it was fun to read your thoughts!

Leanne Dyck said...

Thank you, Laurie. I'm glad you enjoyed it. : )

Darlene said...

Great review of an excellent book. The movie wasn't bad either but of course I loved the book more.

Leanne Dyck said...

Thank you, Darlene. : )
And on the whole I'd have to agree with you--I'd take the book over the movie, too. With one exception... That scene, in the movie, between Aibileen and Mae Mobley--in which Aibileen tells Mae Mobley she's smart, she's good and she's kind (or something like that--I need to watch the movie again) I think that scene is handled so much better in the movie. Just my two cents...or nickel's worth. : )