Book Review: The Help

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett is fantastic.

It’s a novel consisting of a collection of fictional first-person perspectives about black domestic servants working in white households, in 1960s Mississippi.

I studied the American civil rights movement at A-level so before reading, I had some understanding of the historical events and prevailing social attitudes at that time. However, The Help is not written like a textbook or documentary. Whilst a work of fiction, The Help was undoubtedly inspired by real events and real people. It’s personal, raw, emotional and shocking.

Stockett’s writing perfectly reflects the different characters’ personalities. There are three main narrative perspectives; Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson are both maids in white households, subject to constant racial prejudice. Eugenia Phelan is a white woman who realises the shocking racism in her town and seeks to expose it.

My favourite character was Aibileen, who works for Elizabeth Leefolt . She’s incredibly loving towards the child in her care, humble, respectful. The strength she demonstrates in working dutifully in the face of the many racist comments made about her by her employer – is remarkable.

Given the subject matter, The Help is obviously quite dark and serious in places. Yet, there are some light and funny moments as friendships grow between different characters.

I also found it interesting to read about Minny’s perspective, who works for Celia Foote.

Miss Celia, as Minny calls her, lacks the ‘Stepford Wife’ personality to fit in to society. She doesn’t even know how to cook and is scorned by the other women; she’s never invited for afternoon tea or card games and seems to be truly alone. and she feels truly alone. However, Minny and Miss Celia seem to bond somewhat, in their shared experiences of feeling like an outcast.

Whilst The Help is clearly designed to highlight and condemn racial discrimination, it also draws attention to the varying social prejudices that existed (and still do exist) in communities as well.

I strongly recommend this book; The Help is a gripping read and I didn’t realise quite how much I’d enjoy it.

– Judith

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Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an American novel of pseudo-historical fiction about Hester Prynne and her illegitimate daughter Pearl. Following Hester’s extramarital affair while her husband is overseas, she gives birth to a child, and is condemned to wear a scarlet A stitched upon her clothing as a sign of her sin.

According to my research, Nathaniel Hawthorne, read extensively about Puritan history – that much is evident by religious language and references – and may have based his novel on the story of Mary Bailey Beadle, a live-in housekeeper for a minister. Gossip spread about them living together, and the pair were fined.

The Scarlet Letter begins with an introduction and preface; I skipped both. I don’t think I missed much.

It becomes quickly becomes apparent the message Hawthorne is either satirising or endorsing: women who have extramarital relationships are fallen and they alone are responsible for the sin. I suppose the phrase ‘It takes two to tango’ hadn’t yet come into usage by 1850.

My reading of The Scarlet Letter is that Hawthorne intended to mock Puritan society. There’s just too much irony for this not to be a satirical work:

  • It’s ironic that the townspeople who judge Hester for her sinfulness for being sexually deviant mark this judgement plain by staring … at Hester’s bosom, where the scarlet letter just so happens to have been stitched.
  • It’s ironic that Pearl’s father refuses to admit his paternity, so as not to besmirch his reputation, yet is on the committee of people querying whether Hester is a fit mother, wondering whether to remove Pearl from her care.
  • It’s ironic that over the course of the novel, Hester lives a quiet, penitent life whilst Pearl’s father becomes overcome by his guilt and shame.

It was sad that there was so much hatred and judgement for Hester – especially as this was all passed on to little Pearl too, who has done nothing wrong except, in the eyes of the townspeople, be born.

I really liked the supernatural elements of the book. I love anything with Gothic or horror undertones, and Pearl is often suspected of being an elf or demon by the townspeople because of her wilder, unruly nature; she wasn’t conceived within a Puritan marriage, you see, so of course she can’t be well-behaved.

I liked the Gothic descriptions of Hester and Pearl, and the way in which Pearl’s father is suspected of black magic or a supernatural illness due to his deterioration in physical and mental health. Of course, his decline in health is really caused by his guilt at witnessing Hester take all the blame upon herself.

The Scarlet Letter was a short book to read, but for me, it began to drag 2/3 of the way in. There doesn’t seem to be much action; the focus is largely on Hester trying to move on with her life, Pearl’s father wrestling with shame, and the “revenge” plot of Hester’s husband which, in my opinion, wasn’t an exciting subplot at all.

It wasn’t as sensational as I thought it was going to be – although perhaps for the time it was.

However, the final chapter was an exciting ending; all secrets were revealed, and characters were confronted with their wrongdoings.

Did everyone face justice? Well, you’ll have to read it and find out.

– Judith

Themes in: Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

Crossing The River is an odd book to describe. It is a piece of historical fiction, with a trans-historical mode. This means that, whilst focusing on issues of colonialism and slavery, it collectively tells the stories of multiple characters, both black and white.  However, despite being a collection of different stories, they are all thematically linked.

Slavery

Phillips wanted to write about slavery involvement in the UK, so naturally, this theme is clear throughout Crossing the River.  At the start of the book, The Ancestor sells his children into slavery. The pairing of money and slaves is continued significantly in the characters of Captain Hamilton and Edward Williams. Captain Hamilton is the owner of a slave-ship who, ironically, believes slave-trading is wrong. However, the financial gains he makes from the slave industry is the motivation behind his continued involvement. Edward Williams is the owner of a slave plantation, who also believes slavery is wrong, and yet participates in the industry regardless. The monetary value placed on a human life, and the commodification of slavery is absolutely vile; apparently it is not enough to benefit from having someone fulfil each and every of your desires, a profit must be made too. Crucially though, the author is unbiased in their depiction of these characters. Their involvement in the slave trade industry is neither praised nor condemned, leaving it to the reader to respond.

Melancholy

Each story seems to have an undercurrent of sadness. The Ancestor sells his children, which breaks his heart. Edward and Nash are separated*, Nash’s letters to Edward are never responded to and Nash is given no reason as to why this is the case.

*It’s hinted Edward’s wife forced communication between the pair to end after she discovered the homoerotic nature of their relationship.

Martha travels across America searching for her daughter, and Joyce sadly gives up her baby. This melancholia is often paired with feelings of loss, abandonment, displacement and/or severed relationships – perhaps to reflect the feelings of slaves across history.  They have been taken from their homes, removed from their families, and forced to suffer at the hands of a slave master.

Journeys

Many of the characters undertake journeys in Crossing the River. There are two types of journeys however: physical and metaphorical.

Physically, Martha travels across America to find her daughter, Edward travels to Africa to find Nash, Travis travels from America to Britain because of World War II, and Captain Hamilton goes on sea voyages as a slave-ship owner.

Metaphorically, some of the characters make the “journey” from life into death. Furthermore, journeys may also represent the trans-historical mode of the novel. Taking a “journey across time” is a popular phrase to describe tracking certain events of themes through history.  By presenting multiple characters’ physical journeys and metaphorical journeys of self-discovery and freedom, Phillips provides the reader with a historical journey, presenting how the issues of slavery and race relations are still as relevant today as they were during the time of the British slave trade involvement.

 

– Judith