“I look at Aibileen and am reminded, once again, the risk she’s taking talking to me.”
This is a really heart-warming tale (and yes, I know, there’s been considerable controversy about its selective representation of the lives of African American domestic workers, but skipping right along…) about a young white journalist and two black maids who are determined to right (and write) some wrongs. Skeeter Phelan comes home from university, annoyed that all her friends have dropped out to get married, and is distraught to find that the family maid who raised her has apparently quit. Skeeter befriends Aibileen, who works for Skeeter’s childhood friend Elizabeth, and decides to write a book with Aibileen and other maids working in Jackson about what it’s really like to work as The Help in white Mississippi households. The women have to overcome suspicion, segregatory policies and their own distrust of one another for their project to succeed.
The book is excellent. It is the characters on whom the success of the book relies. The plot is merely a skeleton on which to hang the interaction of three women in difficult circumstances, and becomes a collection of anecdotes they tell one another. The historical context is eye-opening; life as a young white woman in 1950s Mississippi was very different to my own experience in Europe – I would have gone batty organising cake sales and benefit dances and hemming curtains. The three main characters (and narrative points of view) have very distinct voices; Minny is such a forceful character that it is a relief that she is given less “airtime” than Skeeter and Aibileen.
The writing is deft and elegant without being showy
“Stuart needs ‘space’ and ‘time’ as if this were physics and not a human relationship”
The film is extraordinarily faithful to the book, and I was not annoyed to have watched the film first. Emma Stone is an excellent Skeeter, all awkwardness and wit and elbows; Viola Davis as Aibileen is the picture of restraint and dignity, and Octavia Spencer is just wonderful as loudmouth Minny. I love (love) Allison Janney after her work as C.J. Cregg in The West Wing; she plays a very difficult and less sympathetic character in this film (Skeeter’s mother) but her performance is no less admirable.
Given more space in a 453-page novel than a 2-hour box office hit, some of the characters are fuller in the novel; Hilly is a more sympathetic character because we see her being a wonderful mother as well as a terrible racist and snob, Elizabeth is much unhappier in the book, constantly trying to dress up her life, very thin, unable to mother her children.
Other reviews/blog posts: Breathe Fiction, Amused by Books, BermudaOnion and Sandy on the film; Amused by Books, Reading in the Bath and New Dork Review of Books on the book; Amy McKie on the historical failing of the book and a more balanced reading list; a statement from the Association of Black Women Historians on the lack of balance in the book; an NPR article on Eudora Welty’s Where is the Voice Coming From?, a short story dealing with the same events as The Help