Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the help: review

There are a few kisses of death for books in my world. One was being chosen for 'Oprah's book club' when it existed - unless it was a book already on my list, in which case I tried to find an edition without the Oprah stamp of approval - and the second has generally been to be a 'Heather's pick' at Chapters. I try not to shop for books at Chapters, but when I do, if a book is on the 'Heather's pick' shelves I am always left wondering 'who is Heather and why should I care what she likes?' - to clarify, I know that the Heather in question is Heather Reisman, CEO of Chapters/Indigo. What I don't know is why her opinion of a book should matter any more than any one else's. 

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However, that is where I first saw The Help - in a bright yellow stack on a 'Heather's Pick' in the 'movie tie-in' edition. I admit I was drawn in by the crinolined dresses on the cover - I cannot resist a pretty dress - but reading the back cover and finding the promise of a story of race in the South - something that always inexplicably fascinates me - I knew I HAD to read this book. Luckily, there was a healthy stack of first editions at one of my favourite local booksellers, Russell Books.

One of the review quotes on The Help's cover compares it to To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite the similarities though, I consider the comparison an overstatement. Certainly they both illuminate reality in a period of American history that now seems distant. Both authors are Southern women writing about their homes' recent past (Harper Lee wrote in 1960 about Alabama in the 1930's; Kathryn Stockett's book about Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960's was published in 2009).

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The difference, though, is that when Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 race tension was still a real, present, and immediate threat. The act of publishing that book in and of itself was an act of courage. That To Kill... is still a best-seller, still taught in classrooms from elementary to graduate school, and still moves readers to tears and outrage speaks to its depth.

I am not so naive as to believe that race equality has been achieved in the deep South, or in America, or in Canada, or really anywhere in our world. Part of humanity is that we see others as different at best, and more likely inferior. I'm not so naive as to think that Stockett's novel has nothing to teach us about over-coming the deficiencies in our human state - about treating one another as humans, about gentleness and justice and love and honesty. I am saying, however, that The Help is not the radical statement that was Mockingbird. And the difference is deeper than the culture into which each book was born.

The Help is insightful. The characters are, generally, skillfully drawn and subtly complex. And the plot is tense and compelling. I absolutely enjoyed it. But there's a lack of grit - an inappropriate lightness - that is inconsistent with the reality of the time in which the story is set. Yes, people find a way to be happy, to enjoy life, to find joy in a baby's tottering first steps and peace in the kindness of a stranger no matter what else is happening around them. But somehow Stockett loses the thread of tension in the story when she shows the humour and happiness that exists even in dark times. I'm not a particular fan of deep, dark depressing novels ... but there is a balance necessary.

I whole-heartedly recommend The Help. I believe it will become a genuine & deserved classic - there are moments of real beauty and life in the story. I'm even looking forward to the movie, recognizing the limitations of the change of medium. But it is no To Kill a Mockingbird ... you're best to leave your expectations on the counter of your bookstore.


  1. Thanks for the review! I have been on the fence about reading this book, and your thoughts were very helpful! :)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Noël. If you do read 'The Help' I'd love to hear what you think.


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