Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Book Review: The Help (Niceville)

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett (2009)
(Swedish title: Niceville)

I listened to this as audio book in Swedish translation. I’d never heard of it before, just happened to see it on the CD audio book shelf in the library, and it caught my interest.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960’s, and is told from the perspectives of three different women. Skeeter, a young white girl from a wealthy family, with dreams of becoming a journalist (while her mother only wishes for her to find a suitable husband), comes to befriend Aibileen, a black maid working for one of Skeeter's closest friends. Aibileen is outwardly subservient, but well read, and used to doing some writing of her own too (although so far only for herself, and without ambitions). Aibileen in turn has a friend, Minny, also a maid, who used to work for another old friend of Skeeter’s in the past. Minny is a lot more temperamental and outspoken than Aibileen; which has often got her into trouble with her employers.

It’s an era of blatant racial discrimination, and Skeeter, feeling a bit rebellious about society’s rules in more than one area, gets the idea to write a book about the situation of black maids from their perspective, by interviewing them about their lives. The plan is to get the book published anonymously, and using fake names for everyone involved. She gets Aibileen and Minny to help her with the project. But everyone is still very much afraid (for good reason!) of what the repercussions might be – not only for themselves, but also their families – if the truth leaks out.

I found this a well-written and interesting book, bringing the time period and situation back then to life – well, as far as “rhyming” with the news flashes that reached us here in Sweden back in the 60’s, anyway. (I was born in 1955, so in the early 60’s I was only a child. But when Martin Luther King died I was 13, and able to take in a bit more of the discussions of racial discrimination etc. I still have in my bookshelf a copy of Coretta Scott King’s book about her husband, in Swedish translation, printed in 1970.)

One of the strongest points made in the novel is the basic contradiction of the white upper class women leaving their children in the care of the same maids whom they keep treating as less than human.

PS. I just looked up some quotes from the book on the internet, and was a little taken aback by how big a difference it sometimes makes to read a text in the original language compared to reading it in translation. The Swedish translation and audio recording in this case made no or very little attempt to imitate the dialect/grammar used by the black maids (“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”)  No doubt because it would be linguistically impossible to do this in a meaningful way in modern Swedish. But it seems from the quotes that the original text makes this distinction throughout. My guess is that reading the book in English thereby probably emphasizes the class differences even more. What effect this may have on the general impression of the book for an American reader is hard for me to say, though.

I also find that the book has been turned into a movie.
I think I shall have to get it on DVD as well!

12 comments:

  1. having lived through this, i have no desire to read about it. it was all horrible to me then and now...

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    1. I guess I can understand that, Sandra. When I scanned through some reviews of this book, this seems to be one those books that got five stars from some people and only one from others; also indicating that it stirred up all sorts of feelings in different readers.

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  2. Turned out our town library has the movie on DVD. I've ordered it and will get it in a couple of days.

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  3. You will enjoy the movie....I certainly did.
    It brought home to me many injustices of the period against blacks. A piece of history that is better laid to rest.

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    1. In a way I agree, Virginia. On the other hand, sometimes it can be "good" to remind ourselves of cruel history as well, so as not to repeat it. In my country, we had very few non-European immigrants back in the 1960s.Throughout my school years, senior high included, I don't think there was a single child of African descent in my schools - not because of discrimination, but because there just weren't any. The situation today is very different, and therefore we also have to be on our guard against new forms of racism and discrimination.

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  4. I have read the book and seen the film. I am also reasonably well-informed about the social conditions of the time and place. Initially I enjoyed the book. It is easy to forget that this novel is a complete work of fiction by an academic who has never had any personal experience of the topics. She deliberately set out to write a book that would sell well. I found that particularly unpleasant. The film is not my idea of the book. It is too glossy and fine. Some aspects of the book are reinterpreted using different devices. That was reasonable but I found it distracting too. I enjoyed reading your opinions about The Help and encourage you to watch the DVD. But at the same time, think about how Americans still treat people who are not rich and powerful.

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    1. I read some of the discussion about the book after I had finished the book itself, Louise. There are always people who get jealous of success though, so I tend to take certain kinds of criticism with a pinch of salt too. As for the film, I'll wait to have an opinion until I've seen it. I don't expect too much; it just struck me that it would be quicker way for me to grasp the language issue that I didn't really think of until after I'd already listened to the whole book rendered in Swedish.

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  5. This all pre-supposes that discrimination: racial, religious, gender and much more has declined. It has altered. Has it declined? Having been brought up by parents who had friends of all colours and creeds, been brought up in the Church of England but been sent to a Roman Catholic prep school (which I didn't even realise until I read it on the old school pupils' Facebook page about two years ago) I didn't really appreciate the realities of discrimination until after I'd left school and entered the real world. Having been the 'victim' of it since then I understand it (a little anyway).

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    1. I don't think this book presupposes at all that all kinds of discrimination has declined (even if certain official laws have been changed since the 1960s). I'd say the focus in the story is on how awareness and choices of individuals can help bring about changes; but no promises about this being an easy process.

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  6. I picked up the DVD from the library today and watched the film this afternoon. I liked it; I think they did a good job of converting this book for the screen. I actually couldn't help getting tear-eyed towards the end even though I read the book as late as last week! :) It's a feel-good movie (and book) with quite a bit of humour in spite of the serious issues addressed.

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  7. We have the movie, someone gave it to us as a gift. Actually, we were not crazy about it. And the worst part was the PIE!!! I do get the point though, I lived though this in the fifties ad sixties. I drove through mobs and firebombs when they burned down Washington D.C. So I guess there is just no gentle way to tell this story of inhumanity to man. I will say that if you liked the book, the acting on the movie is wonderful and many were nominated for Oscars. I think the maid may have one one. But the scene of her being fired and separated from the baby is heartbreaking. Ella accidentally saw that part at her house and it is still making her troubled and really sad.

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  8. Nice post. It shows how rich could a literature be in terms of translation.Through translating shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.Whether in . finnish translation. or in any foreign language translation helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region

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