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Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: the Help

I read a very entertaining and thought provoking book over the weekend called "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett. I'm a bit late to the bandwagon again as, not only is this a New York Times Bestseller, it's already been made into a motion picture. Better late than never.

This novel is set in the deep American south in the 60's and 70's. It's a book about writing a book. The characters are a mix of black maids and privileged white folk that aren't supposed to mix despite the fact that they are incredibly interwoven. One of the socialites decides she wants to write about the stories of the lives of her friends' maids. It's a dangerous undertaking for everyone. And everyone in this book has some kind of barrier. For some, it's being black in a world where power is maintained tightly and fearfully by white people. The white women are also suppressed. Girls are encouraged, if not forced, to be all they can be in order to "catch a good (i.e. rich and powerful) man. Their barriers are the the need to maintain a facade, and a social order.

There are many themes that run through this book. One of them, and perhaps the central one, is the love that crosses those boundaries. It's the story of how many white children in that place and era were brought up, loved, and cherished by black women. And that love was reciprocated, at least until the children grew up and stopped being "color-blind".

The lives described are told from the perspective and language of the people that lived them. That's where the book really shines, in my opinion. When I read the book, I gained just a piece of perspective that was new to me. There was nothing in the book that was familiar to me. There were no childhood reminders, no looking back and remembering something similar, no triggers. Instead, I was transported into lives and lifestyles I have only ever read about from someone else's perspective.

There are more than two sides to this story. The book doesn't judge in a lot of instances, or if it does, it measures all actions with the same stick. It just "tells it like it is", or was.

This book really celebrates the power of the written word. These women embark on a writing project in order to bring change to their world. They understand the power of writing and that's what makes them both hopeful and fearful at the same time.

I believe that part of the power of books is that when you read, you change your perspective. A book as well written as "The Help" encourages you to enter at least part of the life of that character and feel the world as they do. The dialogue in this book is written as the characters spoke. I found in parts, as a foreigner, I had to read it slowly in order to understand. And I did start to understand for just a brief moment, a piece of what life might have been like.

Although it's a fantastic testament to the author and the book that this has been made into a movie, I think it's sort of sad that it has. I don't think movies have quite the power of books. When you read a book you don't argue with the character from your perspective- you become the character. When you read, their thoughts are in your head. When you watch, it's your thoughts interpreting their actions. No where near the same impact for me. When you watch a movie you can choose to look at the rose or the thorn on the rose. A good camera person can certainly focus your attention, but you can still choose to look away. When you read a book, you don't even know if the rose has a thorn or not unless the character tells you. That's perspective.

This is a book about understanding others and the lives they have lead. The characters all realize a great deal about the "other side" as they work through their project. In 1970, Joe South wrote and sung, "Walk a Mile in My Shoes". Since then it has become a popular saying to express the thought that before you judge, criticize or understand someone you really have to see the world from their perspective- live their life. I think it would be much more enlightening if you read their memoirs.

If I walk in your shoes, it's still my feet, my legs and my eyes. If I read your thoughts I might have just a brief glimpse into your perspective without my own judgement. And Kathryn Stockett seems to have woven a the memoirs of a couple of key characters together to make for a fantastic glimpse at that part of the world, at that time, for those lives.

I think there is important information here that is told in an entertaining, often humerous way and that will make a good movie. By making a movie out of the book the audience that hears the message increases and that's a good thing as well. I just hope that, if you are a reader, you read the book first and allow yourself to "be" the characters.

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