Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Some books make me laugh, some make me cry, some fill me with anger, and some with wonder and amazement. Every once in a great while, a book will do all of these things to me. The Help is one of those books.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a recent grad from Ole Miss, has a degree in English and Journalism. With a great deal of optimism, she applies for a senior executive editing job at a major New York publishing house. A sympathetic editor advises her to get some experience first and asks her for story ideas she has to tell. None of them have any value beyond her local community, until she decides to tell the stories of black maids working for white families. The editor likes the idea and tells her to start writing. Skeeter’s naiveté exposes itself, when she wishes Editor Elaine Stein a Merry Christmas. Her deadpan reply, “We call it Hannukah.”

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi with a back drop of the murder of Medgar Evers, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passage of the Civil Rights laws of the 60s. Stockett uses three voices: Skeeter, Aibileen, the first maid to talk to Skeeter, and Minny, a powerful personality in the Black community and the first to join Aibileen in telling her story.

These women cook, clean, shop, and, most importantly, raise the children of these women whose main occupations seem to be gossip, bridge, and keeping the servants in their place. The parenting issues this novel raises alone make this a great and absorbing work of fiction. I get the feeling of a true story with only the names changed to protect the brave women who volunteered to open up to public view the ugly side of their lives.

At first, the maids are too terrified to talk to a white women, let alone tell the stories of Skeeter’s friends. Gradually – when one of the housekeepers has been brutally treated by her employer – her friends that work in white households all over the city come around and begin telling the tales of their difficult lives.

This sometimes grim tale, does have its moments of humor. When Minny gets a job in the suburbs, she wants to take the car, while her husband who works the night shift at a local factory wants it. Minny says, “She paying me seventy dollars cash every Friday, Leroy.” He responds, “Maybe I take Sugar’s bike.”

These strong women bear inconceivable burdens dealing with the prejudice of their employers while holding their own families together. Incredibly, they prepare food for the families, but they cannot use the same utensils to eat lunch, and thanks to one particularly obnoxious woman, can no longer use the toilets in the houses they spend all day cleaning. Once again, the inhumanity of one set of people against another – simply because of the color of their skin – baffles me.

One of the most poignant moments occurs near the end of the book at a church meeting called by the maids who told Skeeter their stories. This community demonstrates amazing strength in the face of threats to their homes, their jobs, and their lives. To anyone who thinks the servants in the “Jim Crow South” led happy and pleasant lives, The Help will come as quite a shock. 5 stars

--Chiron, 12/2/10

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