Thursday, March 15, 2012

afterthoughts from The Help

I just finished reading The Help tonight.  As I'm not in a book club (maybe I should be?) and don't know if I'll have anyone with whom to chat about it soon, I figure I'll take down my reactions at least for my own memory later.

Perhaps the strongest emotion I felt woven through this story is love.  I was amazed by the relationship between Aibileen and Mae Mobley.  I'm not sure what builds that bond between a maid and a child that is not her own -- is it the ongoing act of caring for and raising the child that engenders a mother-like love?  Is it the natural innocence, joy, energy that the child has in abundance?  I think I cannot fully understand from my point of view, given that I haven't the experience of being a mother.  Yet at the same time, it was somewhat shocking the way the white mothers in the story generally seemed to be a mix of uninterested in and annoyed by the role of being a mother, or of what was left of it, anyway.  I couldn't help but wonder why they would have children in the first place, if they didn't want to be raising them... but perhaps that's just how women's lives were expected to unfold at that time and/or place.

The love in the friendships among the black community was beautiful, too.  I suppose some of that comes to existence naturally due to the situation -- all being together in the same boat, so to speak.  But they really supported each other, through their church and in individual friendships.

I enjoyed Skeeter's character a lot.  Her peers in the town seemed like empty human beings with surface level lives, spending their days gossiping, playing bridge, being in the League, and getting their hair done.  But Skeeter was a person with her own unique depth: she took notice of her community and surroundings and saw them for what they were; she had her own interests and dreams (and while she respected and cared for her parents, she didn't let them press her into a life path of their choosing); she had immense self-respect (in her interactions and relationship with Stuart, in going forth with her mission of the book despite basically everyone she had been friends with turning away from her).  In other words, she lived true to herself.  And once she put her finger on what she felt was right and necessary to do, she took on the project with diligence, yet with honest respect and care for those involved.

Reading the story definitely enveloped me in a different time and place.  It took me away from the busy, technology-infused world that even my own daily life is, and put me in a town that was mostly its own microcosm in time.  It's funny how that time period seems to be lost to the history textbooks.  We all learn about slavery, civil rights movements, and such.  But the world of the story seemed to be partially functional.  The maids were paid, but still struggled to make ends meet.  They were perhaps treated civilly, yet were viewed at least by some as still a different class of human being, and hence, segregation was the way things ran.  This was set in the south; perhaps the north was already changing more rapidly by then, but I don't really know the history.

I'm going to sound like a reviewer, but truly it was an eye-opening book.  But aside of that, it was touching and emotional as well, because once you get down past all the lines that the people of that time were living by, you can see and feel the beauty of the human relationships: between Aibileen and Minny, Skeeter and Aibileen, Aibileen and Mae Mobley, Skeeter and her mother, Stuart and Skeeter...  And, of course, the entire point is exactly that which Skeeter realized her book was demonstrating.