This was a book group choice and so I read it even though I had seen the film. As a rider to my own thoughts, I will say first that this book has received almost unanimous positive praise; for example, 1646 ‘5 star’ ratings on Amazon as compared to only 14 ‘1 star’, 59 ‘5 star’ compared to only 1 ‘1 star’ on Waterstones. So, it is undoubtedly an extremely popular book.
‘The Help’ is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the Deep South, where black women work as domestic help in white households. Segregation is the norm, although rumblings of change are afoot with the emergence of activists such as Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. The novel follows Aibileen and Minny, two coloured ‘helps’ who are persuaded by Skeeter Phelan, an ambitious and unconventional young, white woman, to share their stories of life in domestic service for publication in a book. Written in the patois of the servants, the narrative explores their relationships with the whites whose homes they run. They expose wrong-doing and ingrained prejudice, but also loyalty and friendship. The book is at times amusing and illuminating, touching on a deeply shameful aspect of modern society. It provoked a great deal of animated discussion at our regular book group gathering!
Whilst I enjoyed the book, I did have some reservations. These largely centred upon the fact that the characters seemed stereo-typed, none of the men in the book get a good press and many of the plot elements were too far-fetched. I have not read any other fiction set in this era and am loath to criticise too viciously, I was just left with a vague feeling of uneasiness. Whilst trying to organise my thoughts around this issue, I found the following link extremely useful : An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help. In conclusion, whilst ‘The Help’ is an entertaining read, it is not necessarily a reliable social commentary.