Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help (A Novel) by Kathryn Stockett. Historical Fiction Review

Penguin Books, Published 2009. ISBN 978-0-425-23220-0, 522 pages

The Help by Kathryn Stockett was chosen by a member of my book club as our assigned reading.  At first glance, being a historical fiction buff, I thought I'd have to grit my teeth and wade through it.  Another lesson on not judging a book by its cover.

The action in The Help commences Jackson, Mississipi in 1962, but I'm going to stretch the 50 year qualification rule.  After all, what's a year in the grand scheme of things?

The Help is told through the eyes of three protagonists:  Aibileen and Minny, black maids to white society women, and Skeeter, a white woman with a burning ambition to enter the world of journalism. 

Skeeter is already somewhat of a odd-ball in white society, because she finished college and is still unmarried.  Marriage is a relentless pursuit by white society ladies; college a means to meeting the prospective husband.

Aibileen has raised 17 white children during her long tenure as a maid and endured slurs without a murmur.  The final insult is when her employer, Elizabeth, insists a bathroom be built in a shed outside her home for Aibileen's use to prevent dangerous diseases inherently carried by black people infecting her family.

Minnie, however, is not a character who takes kindly to innuendos or outright besmirchment.  She has lost many employment positions due to "sassing" her employers.  In fact, because of the Terrible Awful (you'll understand the importance of these words when you read the book), Minnie is virtually unemployable.  Luckily, for her, a white woman considered trash by the society ladies hires Minnie.

Skeeter, challenged by a New York publisher to write on an innovative subject, decides to write a book about what it is like to be a black maid to a white woman.

The principal antangonist is Hilly Hollbrook, a white lady despot who is determined to keep black maids "in their place" and fellow society members under her thumb.  One whiff of Skeeter's project would have disastrous results for Skeeter and black maids alike.

This leads to me to the only problem I had with this novel; the vapid society ladies that surround Hilly.  Her every word, decree and hand signal is obeyed without question.  Surely women possessed minds in the 1960's.

One of Skeeter's biggest obstacles is finding a black woman willing to tell her story.  Aibileen, after much persuasion, becomes the first black maid to talk to Skeeter; a task Aibileen finds difficult, to say the least.  Aibileen convinces her best friend, Minnie, to be the second.

The Help is the tale of Skeeter struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds to publish a book that crosses the line, especially in Jackson, Missippi, and the black women who make the book possible.

Kathryn Stockett empathetically conveys the intense dread these black women suffer in fear of retribution for telling their stories to Skeeter.  The Help is an emotional, poignant and, sometimes, funny novel, which will shock you that such circumstances existed a mere 50 years ago.

I especially recommend you read Kathryn Stockett's essay, Too Little, Too Late, at the end of he novel.

This is a great book for book clubs (especially now the movie has come out) or for anyone who truly wishes to understand the circumstances and realities black people faced in the Deep South in the 1960's.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (Excellent)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Darlene Williams Top Historical Fiction Novels (Part II)

Has your summer been crazy and somehow disappeared into the ether?  Mine has.  However, I have still been busy reading and researching amongst summer activities.

I must admit the research for the next edition of Top Historical Fiction Novels was more difficult than I anticipated.  I visited several libraries, only to find many of the novels I expected on the shelves disappeared over time.

Nonetheless, I was able to locate some worthy titles for you to check out.  Again, in no particular order, another 20 historical fiction novels I consider merit inclusion in the top historical fiction novels list:

21.   The Great Stink by Clare Clark
22.   The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark
23.   The Return from Troy by Lindsay Clarke
24.   The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
25.   The Glass of Time (quasi-sequel to the above) by Michael Cox
26.   Hadrian's Will by William Dietrich
27.   Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
28.   In The Company of a Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
29.   The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
30.   Life Mask by Emma Donaghue
31.   Slammerskin by Emma Donague
32.   The Book of Eleanor by Pamela Kaufman
33.   Book of Negros by Lawrence Hill
34.   The Moonlit Cage by Linda Holeman
35.   In a Far Country by Linda Holeman
36.   Bedlam by Greg Hollingshead
37.   The Josephine B. Trilogy by Sandra Gulland
38.   Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland
39.   Bluebird or the Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler
40.   Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

I am continuing the research rather painstakingly by scouring nearly 5,000 historical fiction novel titles listed on my local library's catalogue.  So, keep an eye out for the next edition of Top Historical Fiction Novels in the near future.

In the meantime, I have about 100 pages left to finish on Kathryn Stockett's "The Help", 144 pages of "From Sea to Shining Sea" by James Alexander Thom and an enormous tome written by Paul Anderson, "Hunger's Bride, A Novel of the Baroque" (1300 pages), awaits.

Somewhere in there, I am going to cram a 2 month historical research course in preparation for my first novel.

Sleep, well who needs that!