Sunday 5 February 2012

The Help

I just finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett.  It is her first novel and yet it climbed to Number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list last year.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, the novel is based on a young journalism major named Eugenia (Skeeter) Phelan who has just returned from university and is looking for a purpose.  She comes up with the idea to write a book called The Help about the relationship between black maids and the white families for whom they work in the Deep South. 

Skeeter is pleased to gain the trust of two maids, Aibileen and Minny, who pour out their life stories.  It turns out that Aibileen, normally a passive woman who bites her tongue, is also a writer who pens her prayers every evening.  Minny, however, is the type who has always spoken her mind, which has led to her losing many a job.  Both women give Skeeter much to write about.  However, Skeeter has to work much harder to gain the trust of the other ten maids, as her New York publisher has requested the opinions of twelve maids in total.

While she is gaining the trust of the maids, she is losing the trust of her white socialite friends.  A humourous scene ensues where one friend named Hilly Holbrook has requested that Skeeter type a request that everyone send her their old coats to be donated to charity.  Skeeter obliges but deliberately types "commodes" rather than coats in the message, and Hilly's lawn ends up littered with toilets.

As tensions between blacks and whites mount in Jackson, Mississippi (Medgar Evers, an NAACP field secretary, is shot and killed in his own driveway) more black maids start to speak out.  One constant struggle for the maids is how to balance work life and home life.  Yule May longs to send her two sons to college, but is short $75.  She begs her employer to lend her the money, but she turns her down, saying that charity begins at home.  Minny spends her days toilet training Mae Mobley, the young daughter of her employer and the seventeenth white child she has raised, while her own children fend for themselves at home.  In the meantime, Skeeter wonders what happened to her family's maid, Constantine, the woman who largely raised her, who mysteriously moved away while Skeeter was at college.  Her mother is not forthcoming with an answer; she is more concerned about her socialite daughter finding a husband. 

The history is fascinating in this Southern tale.  It is a sad commentary on not only how whites treated blacks in the Deep South in the 1960's, but how women treated other women, since the black maids took most of their direction (and abuse) from white housewives.  Kathryn Stockett effectively paints a picture of the Deep South.  One scene stands out where Skeeter is talking with her boyfriend in a gazebo on a cotton plantation; you can just imagine you are there.  If you like American history, The Help is the book for you.

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1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful book for book clubs as it makes us all reflect on social and racial justice in the United States. The book is very well written. It's pages have been turned into an excellent movie.
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