Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

This one had a lot of hype, and I think it was worth it. It’s about the life of black maids in 1960s Mississippi. Here’s the blurb:

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step….

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women–mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends–view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don’t.

Let’s start with the negatives. Most people’s problem with this book seems to be that the black characters are stereotypical. I’m not sure they are. Most have extreme dialects. I don’t know how accurate they are, so I won’t comment. Minny is sassy and stubborn, while Aibileen is more refined.

I’ve heard criticisms that while the black characters speak with a dialect, they think without it. Supposedly this is because the (white) author couldn’t commit or was seeing it too much from their point of view. In defence of the author, she grew up in those times with a maid she was very fond of (much like Skeeter). Minny speaks and largely thinks in dialect. Aibileen thinks in slightly more standard English, but often speaks with some dialect.

I found this made perfect sense. Aibileen is a big reader, so it would make sense that her internal voice is more like the formal english in those books. She also writes, and again this is much like her internal voice.

Some have accused the author of racism, as her language about Minny’s youngest Kindra is a lot more negative than that of Aibileen’s white baby she cares for. I think that’s more down to pov character. Aibileen lost her own son, and she dotes on May Moe, and feels guilty for the neglect and abuse the girl suffers by her mother. Her main attention is her charge, and they spend a lot of their time together. May Moe is also on the whole quite sweet (aside from some horrible tantrums caused by her mother).

Kindra is mainly seen through the eyes of her overworked mother who has been out working most of her life. She’s one of a large brood, and they have little to no time to bond due to circumstances outside their control. Kindra acts out. Some look at this and see a well behaved white child and a badly behaved black child.

However, May Moe isn’t sunshine and roses. She has her bad and her sweet moments. More importantly the rest of Minny’s children are talked about in positive terms. Minny singles out Kindra as a problem because Kindra is basically a copy of herself. I think the lack of words spent on her more well behaved children reflects the lack of time she’s used to spending with them. It might’ve been better for the author to spend a little more time expanding one of Minny’s more well behaved children to spell this point out, but I don’t think that’s necessary. Aibileen spends a lot of time thinking on her own son just as positively as May Moe.

This is more of an emotional journey than an action packed book. It’s a very interesting look at the racism of the times, and the positive relationships. Some of the stories were so touching, like when an employer took her maid to the hospital when a relative was a victim of a hate crime, and stayed with her for hours to see if the boy would be alright.

There were some truly sweet relationships. Then there were horrible moments, like when the bus driver stopped because his route was blocked. After seeing what it was, he ordered the people with dark skin off. Turns out someone with dark skin had been murdered. Yet he told them to walk home like their safety didn’t matter.

Overall this book does what the book the pov character wrote. It tells a tale of love and hate between those with light skin, and those with dark. It tells us that really, we’re all just people. So we shouldn’t be drawing lines on things that have no relevance to anything.

For more reviews on this book go to: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4667024-the-help

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Our story starts with ten-year old Sarah in world war two, who is arrested with her parents by the french police, who intend to send them to Germany, and the death camps. Before she goes she locks her little brother in a cupboard, thinking she’ll be back in a few hours.

Then we meet Julia Jarmond in Paris 2002. She’s been asked to write an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. Through her investigations she finds a family secret connected to Sarah, and is determined to find out what happened to her. The more she finds out, the more she starts to question her place in France, and reevaluate her marriage, and life.

Our two protagonists share the book, each one leading us chapter by chapter through the story.

I found this fascinating. Both in Sarah’s experiences, and in Julia’s . They’re both very determined and at odds with their own situations. Sarah thinks everything that is being done to them is wrong, and that her father should fight so they can get back to her brother. Julia similarly is annoyed by everyone’s desire to sweep the whole Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup under the rug and never speak of it. She thinks the victims don’t deserve to be forgotten, and she’s determined that at least Sarah will not be.

They’re fighters in passive worlds. The passivity of most of the french, standing by while people are taken (though there are a few people who do take action. And their determination to fight against the herd to make some kind of stand is all the more poignant because of the risk it involved to themselves.) Julia fights against the culture she lives in where most want to forget the whole incident because it shows their country in a bad light.
So many said things like ‘why would you dig that up?’ ‘Can’t you just let it rest?’ Yet she carries on.

I enjoyed both the characters. Both of them went through some major development through the trials they face. Though I wish Sarah didn’t have to go through so much. She should’ve had the chance to be a child longer. You understand their motivations, and what drives them. Julia goes through emotional turmoil herself and comes out of it much stronger. Sarah ends up stronger too, but in a broken, brittle kind of way.

The tension stays high. With the story flipping between Sarah’s journey, and Julia trying to find out Sarah’s journey, there’s the danger of information repeating itself or pacing being off. The pacing was spot on and kept me engaged.

This is more an emotional tale than an action one, so go into it expecting that. I’m glad I read it. I’d never heard of the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup before this book and the related film. This is a very emotional and honest tribute. I think also it has a great message. Not to go with the flow. Question things. Do things you feel are right, even if they are difficult.

There’s a moment when a woman pushes through the jeering crowd to give Sarah a hunk of bread while they’re being marched away. That was truly touching because here’s this woman, she could just stand there, but she does what she can. In another scene a man speaks out against the police dragging them away. One of the officers assigned to keep them locked up before shipping them out to death camps does something very courageous. I won’t say what because I don’t want to give away too much.

These people are single voices in a crowd of people saying the opposite. They remind me of a picture I saw once. A huge crowd of people are saluting Hitler, and in among them is a single man with his arms crossed across his chest, and a defiant look on his face. Sometimes single people can make a difference. Not everyone may see the same thing, but that was the message I took away from this book.

For more reviews on this book go to: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/556602.Sarah_s_Key