THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett [Review]

The Help

Kathryn Stockett tackles the issue of racial segregation in 1960’s era Jackson, Mississippi in her debut novel, The Help. It’s about the black maids who did so much work in white households: cooking, cleaning, and raising the children, but were treated poorly and paid very little. The story is told from the perspective of three different women, one white and two black, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. These women feel that change is possible and they risk everything to bring it about. Despite the topic, the book is not a downer – yes it’s sad at times, but it’s also funny and made me laugh out loud more than once. It’s amazing to me to see how far our country has come in 40 some years in terms of both race and gender inequalities.

Skeeter Phelan is a twenty-two-year-old returning home from Ole Miss with, much to her mother’s chagrin, a diploma rather than a husband. Her friends all left college early to get married and start families, but Skeeter has ambitions to have a career as a writer. The family’s maid, Constantine, raised Skeeter and the two formed a strong bond, almost like family. Skeeter is devastated when she finds out Constantine has suddenly left and nobody will tell her where she went.

Aibileen and Minny are two maids who work for Skeeter’s friends and they are best friends. Aibileen has raised 17 white children and one of her own, but her son died and she is grieving his loss. She works for Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth and is attached to two-year-old Mae Mobley. Elizabeth can barely stand the sight of her own daughter, so, with heartbreaking tenderness, Aibileen takes it upon herself to make sure Mae Mobley knows that she is loved. Aibileen is a wonderful character and so real that she just comes to life from the pages of the book.

While Aibileen is calm and patient, Minny is the exact opposite. Minny is short-tempered and sassy – which is why she’s always getting fired. Minny is hilarious and she isn’t a big fan of Gone With the Wind. She says, “If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.” Her story takes a serious turn when it’s revealed that Minny is balancing five children and an abusive husband.

Inspired by Constantine and with some small encouragement from an editor in New York, Skeeter decides to write a book that tells the stories of black maids in Mississippi. She says, “Everyone knows how we white people feel, the glorified Mammy figure who dedicates her whole life to a white family. Margaret Mitchell covered that. But no one ever asked Mammy how she felt about it.” Skeeter soon finds it’s difficult to get the maids to trust her and open up about their experiences. Young and naïve, she doesn’t understand the danger of what she’s doing until Aibileen and Minny explain it to her. If they decide to tell their stories, they are risking not only their jobs, but also their lives and the lives of their families.

Narrated in turn by each of the three ladies, the reader gets to see what it’s like to be a black woman and a white woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. The racism and intolerance are simply appalling. These qualities are personified in the character of Hilly Holbrook, the president of the Junior League and queen bee of Jackson. She’s made it her mission to have separate bathrooms installed in white homes for The Help to use and ferret out any “integrationists” in her midst. She also has it out for Minny who she falsely accuses of stealing. Self-righteous and wielding her small bit of power, Hilly is a pitch perfect and realistic villain that you will love to hate.

I listened to the audiobook version of The Help and I highly recommend it. The four female narrators deliver great performances with authentic southern accents (to my Yankee ears anyway). One complaint that I’ve heard about the book is that the black characters’ dialogue is written in a heavy dialect (Example: “Oh Law, I think, please don’t let this be any a my peoples”). I can’t really comment on that too much since I listened to, rather than read, the book. Though I do question why the white characters’ voices weren’t written phonetically too because you just know that those ladies had thick southern accents.

Beside the amazingly real characters, The Help also has storylines that will just suck you in. It’s practically addictive – when I wasn’t reading it, all I could think about was getting back to it. The touching stories of love between the maids and the white families were heartwarming and sent a powerful message about how we are more alike than different. The stories of racism and hate are a reminder of our country’s history and how far we’ve come in the past 40 years. If you can’t tell by now, I just loved The Help and can’t recommend it enough. Even if it’s not the type of book you usually go for, give it a try, you might be surprised. It would also be an excellent choice for book clubs.

Buy The Help by Kathryn Stockett on Amazon.

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