Monday, February 09, 2009

The Help

I can't possibly be objective about this book. I loved it. You should go buy it, right now. If it's too late to get to a bricks-and-mortar store, order it from Amazon. It really is that good.

Now, for something resembling a review.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a story of the South during the Civil Rights movement. It's told from the point of view of three women: Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Aibileen and Minny are black hired help and Skeeter is a 22 year-old white woman, fresh out of Ole Miss and returning to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi.

The story opens with Aibileen, who has raised 17 white children but lost her own son in an industrial accident. She works for Miss Leefolt, caring for her daughter Mae Mobley as well as the house. Aibileen is motherly and meek, but keenly feels the cuts inflicted by her white employer. She makes a concerted effort to teach Mae that there really isn't any difference between white people and black people, other than the color of their skin. In 1962 Mississippi, this could prove to be dangerous. Aibileen goes about it quietly, though, causing as few repercussions as possible and putting up with blatantly racist treatment along the way.

Minny, Aibileen's friend and a fellow maid, is the polar opposite. She is acknowledged to be the best cook in the city but she also has the biggest mouth and has lost many jobs because of her outspokenness. As the book begins, she has been fired by Hilly Holbrook, the town's social maven, who runs the Women's League and holds most of the white housewives in thrall. Minny, in desperation, goes to work for the Celia, a white trash girl who married well but can't make a dent in Jackson society.

Skeeter is the daughter of well-to-do parents who comes home from college to find that her beloved maid, Constantine, has disappeared and no one will tell her where she's gone. As she delicately noses around, trying to find out, Skeeter realizes that there are stories that these maids have and she begins to see the injustice perpetrated on these women by the white women she calls her friends.

As racial tensions grow in Jackson, Skeeter hatches a plan to tell the story of Aibileen and other maids in town and get it published. Over the course of the book, Skeeter eventually wins the trust of Aibileen and, miraculously, the ever-suspicious Minny, in addition to 10 or 12 other women. It isn't Skeeter who convinces these women to tell their story but rather Aibileen and the murder of Medgar Evars that prompts these women to speak their pieces. Sometimes those pieces are tales of mistreatment but there are also stories of joy and happiness and geniune love between these black maids and their white female employers.

Stockett deftly switches back and forth between the voices of the three main women in this story, weaving in personal tales about each of them in addition to touching on the greater civil rights issues occurring at the time. It is that, the instances of intimate situations combined with the larger, looming tensions of the era, that make this book so compelling and such a great read. These are characters and stories that stay with you, that make you smile and even laugh out loud, all while knowing, sometimes in the background, often in the forefront, that there is this ache going on, this wrong that must be righted in some way.

This is a review for MotherTalk. You can go to their website to read what others have to say about this, and other, books.


Unknown said...

Sounds like a good one ... thanks for the tip!

Mike said...

Sounds interesting. I love historical and this seems to have the flavor of the South during a tough time in our history.

It goes on my list...