July 19, 2011

The Help: A Review

The Help by Kathyrn Stockett,, set in the early 1960s, explores the racial divide between the black domestic help and the white households they serve. Written from the perspectives of three very different women - Skeeter, a young white woman fresh out of college; Aibileen, an older black maid whose wisdom is rivaled only by her heart; and, Minny, a young black maid who takes no crap from anyone except her husband Leroy - the story weaves together their lives and the risks they're willing to take to make a difference.

Skeeter is intelligent and different than most of her southern belle friends. She's unmarried and possesses a desire to do something with her life, though her mother would prefer her to become the next Housewife of Jackson instead. As she resumes playing bridge in the homes of her friends waited on by their help, Skeeter realizes she can no longer stay ambivalent about the world around her. Nostalgic for the black maid who raised her and suddenly disappeared, though it is seemingly only Skeeter who doesn't know where she is or why she's gone and no one will tell her, Skeeter believes there's a story to be told about the life of black 'help' in Jackson, Mississippi.

Through her work at the local paper writing a domestic advice column, she strikes up a semi-friendship with, Aibileen, the maid of a friend of hers. Initially, Aibileen provides the answers to common household cleaning questions, though Skeeter gets around to asking her to help write the story she wants to tell. Resistant but forever changed by the loss of her son and from a lifetime of raising white babies, Aibileen agrees. Along the way, she brings her friend Minny - who`s been fired from almost every house she`s worked in - into the fold. Even Minny, who infamously can`t hold her tongue, is initially reluctant to help out on the book, but she sees the future of her black children being no different than her present if she doesn`t. Hiding from the world around them, the three woman work together despite the risk to each of their lives to tell the real story of what it`s like working for white women in the southern US in 1962.

As the book unfolded, I found myself keenly interested in how it would all play out. I was eager to find out, good or bad, what would become of these women if, once the book was finished. The Help certainly played up the household life that was in the 1960s, the outward segregation of white and black inside the home while reflecting the quiet intimacy that also existed between some white families and their maids. There is quite a bit of juxtaposition throughout Stockett`s writing, including the blatant irony in how white women trusted their black maids to feed, bathe and raise their white babies while refusing to let them eat at the same table or use the same toilets.

I`d like to say that this behaviour is of a time passed, but unfortunately not. There may no longer be the same inequality between black and white as there was then, but discriminations in many a form live on. In fact, as the pages turned I found myself thinking about how too many states still do not allow gay and lesbian marriage and wondering when I will read a book that reflects back on this as a bygone era. Sadly, that won`t be soon enough. But I digress.

I did find the story of the racial inequality interesting and well laid out with a good balance of truth, humour and sadness. Though I was most struck by a realization Skeeter has near the end that was less about black and white and more about people in general. In conversation with another white woman with whom she`s acquainted but never really known, Skeeter suddenly sees how alike they are even though on the surface they seem to live very different lives. I re-read those sentences a couple of times letting them sink in, realizing that`s what I enjoyed so much about the book and it`s reflection on life. Whether black or white, old or young, gay or straight, university or life educated, employed or not, we`re all just women living our lives trying to do and be the best we can. Why we have such difficulty seeing that in the world around us is hard to fathom.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the characters in the book, particularly the three main characters. They`re heartwarming, likeable, and real. You feel for them as they undertake the biggest risk of their respective lives and root for their courage. They make you remember that we can all make a difference in some way if we so choose. I also enjoyed how the story unfolded in a way that most novels about segregation don`t, steering away from the usual violence. With only subtle references to the realities of segregation in the 1960s, The Help takes place quietly in kitchens around Jackson where words are whispered and some semblance of so-called politeness is attempted to be upheld. It makes for a different, perhaps more feminine, view of the change that`s gonna come.

One of our book club`s summer reads that came highly recommended to me, I can happily highly recommend to you in return.


Sandy said...

would love to borrow this one sometime! :)

lehogan said...

Have not read it, but now I'm intrigued! Thx!