Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Help

I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett recently. What a book! This novel, set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s, is an excellent work of historical fiction. The plot revolves around a group of young white women and the African-American women they employ to run their households and take care of their young children. Remember that the state of race relations at that time and in that place was quite different than now. The Civil Rights movement was barely getting started. There was tremendous fear among most African-Americans about the potentially dire consequences they would suffer for perceived inappropriate behavior -- and for good reason in such a racist society.

The characters are very well-drawn, and readers will care about what happens to them - especially the risk-takers. Lifelong friends, Skeeter, Hilly, and Elizabeth, are the main white women in the book. Their lives are about playing bridge and social climbing. Ambitious Skeeter, a recent college grad, is an aspiring writer. Her career gets launched when she is hired to write a column on housekeeping tips for a local newspaper. Skeeter, who is significantly more enlightened than the others, appeals on the sly to Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, to give her the advice she needs to write the column.

Aibileen is understandably nervous about spending time with Skeeter that takes away from her duties. Over time, they build a relationship. Skeeter capitalizes on that "semi-friendship" when she shares her idea for a book she wants to write about the real story between the local maids and their employers. Even though their real names are not used, imagine the danger for an African-American to divulge the truth about their employers! Skeeter too risks her social standing and her friendships.

Aibileen ultimately agrees to help Skeeter, and she persuades Minnie, a more outspoken maid, to contribute too. About a dozen maids tell their stories. Some are truly heartbreaking. All are filled with raw emotion and told by hardworking, undervalued, and often mistreated women. The book is fraught with tension as the maids stealthily assist Skeeter by sharing their honest recountings of their experiences with the white families. They were as brave as Skeeter was naive about their undertaking.

The white women, other than Skeeter, are entirely clueless about the racist way they treat the help. They don't see any problem with requiring the maids to use separate toilets from the ones the families use because "everybody knows they carry different kinds of diseases than we do". They feel completely entitled to live their lives without reflection or empathy for anyone who they see as different.

Stockett, the author, is a white woman from Jackson, and she acknowledges that she can never truly know what the experience was like for an African-American maid. The language includes dialect that is authentic to that time period. Some readers may be put off by a white author injecting such
language that could be viewed as the sign of an uneducated person. However, I believe it rings true.

There are triumphs along the way, although some are small. That Skeeter is willing to risk her lifelong friendships as her understanding grows is a testament to her character, and it leaves the reader with a bit of hope. The bravery of the maids is huge -- They are smart women who are ready to expose the realities of their lives, and readers will certainly root for them. There are also elements of humor woven in to lighten the tone of the novel.

If you read this book, please post a comment to let me know your feelings about it. It is a book that I recommend highly.

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